ERC Supports Dramatic Turn-Around

The Doran School on the Move: A Case Study of School Renewal 

The John J. Doran K-8 School in Fall River. MA has come a long way in a short amount of time and is still on the way up. People in the city, and increasingly in the region, are recognizing the school as a new and promising center of activity. The Doran is being heralded not only for the growth not of its students, but also for the development of its staff and, increasingly, its parent and caregiver community. With its designation as a Massachusetts “Level Four” school (one requiring intervention) only three years ago, Principal Maria Pontes has been strategic in using resources to create a vibrant conversation at the school. With support from ERC, the school undertook a deeper and more focused conversation about two often neglected components: the link between resilience and achievement and building teacher leadership capacity. Pontes has gone on to assemble a diverse, committed staff that has helped to turn the school around and make it a “go to” place.

ERC Co-Founder Larry Myatt who has consulted with the school from early in its transition, recalls, “I had been asked by the Supt. of Schools to visit and see if there were any ideas I could bring from my experience in Boston and in other cities. It was quite open-ended.  I remember my first impressions of the school vividly”. Teachers were clearly working alone, Myatt recalls, and he remembers a high level of student disruption causing the palpable frustration of teachers, to the point of frequent negative remarks. “It was a classic case of students AND teachers not getting what they needed. And then, all of a sudden, they’re in the Level IV spotlight”, says Myatt, “and the expectations for collaboration and capacity building were beyond what district practices, resources and expertise could provide. Myatt adds, “The good news is a new level of urgency and the ‘checkbook’ that comes with intervention status”. Supt. Meg Mayo-Brown was committed to bestowing the flexibilities Myatt alerted her the district would need to show. Mayo-Brown, says Myatt, “was willing to hear that potential solutions to the problem would require that the district think and act in a one-school-at-a-time way”.

Myatt goes on, “One of the first things I did was to look at school-based job descriptions. They were quite behind-the-times, very narrow”. The gaps in services were enormous and filling them would be significant in helping the school to in turn help students raise the level of what Myatt calls their “readiness to learn”. “Somehow”, he says, “since the testing bug bit us, many people forget what I call the ‘Law of Resilience and Achievement’ --if we demand high levels of engagement and academic performance, we must offer equally levels of high-quality social/emotional support. We’ve paid a huge price for under-designing and under-supporting in the social/emotional arena, and worse, in allowing an arcane ‘guidance counseling’ model to continue to wither just when we need it most.” Myatt also spurred the school to become a K-8, citing examples of many urban schools where sustaining student-teacher-family relationships has bred higher achievement, avoiding unneeded  transitions that research reveals to be a key factor in students falling behind and dropping out. “But”, says Myatt, “it must be done carefully, with a design plan and attentive engineering, and that’s just how the Doran is proceeding.  I’ve seen too many districts botch similar attempts”.  Pontes says that Doran 6th graders are now outperforming their middle school counterparts.

When Myatt mentioned the need for the formation of a school-based “Wellness Team” for the Doran, people scratched their heads. He had to explain what the idea would encompass to almost every person he came in contact with. He began to weave in the ideas of positive rituals and routines in classrooms to provide an inviting atmosphere for students who may come from challenged families, and establishing a much higher level of care coordination. “For me, executing that coordination was critical, and would likely call for some outside-of-school experience”. Myatt crafted new job descriptions and job titles to get a fresh start with each of the new roles in a bureaucratic environment that, as he says, “generally trumps innovation”. Myatt was also insistent on developing parents and caregivers as essential partners and that would take expertise, time and energy in the form of a Parent and Family Coordinator, part of a support model he helped to establish in Boston’s Pilot Schools.

Pontes and Mayo-Brown trusted Myatt’s wisdom and experience. Pontes began to shop these ideas around the school and sent teams to look at others using similar practices, and Mayo-Brown supported the creation of new roles and positions in concert with the Fall River teachers union. Within a year the high-poverty school had a Wellness Team consisting of a Student Support Coordinator (SSC), two student support counselors, a Parent/Family Educator Liaison, the school nurse, and the school’s Asst. Principal, Natalie Silva-Patterson, a key person in tracking behavioral challenges. Karen Lima, a public mental health professional, the new SSC , brings the “inside/outside” perspective and connections Myatt deemed crucial. The difference has been palpable and the Wellness Team, warmly received by the staff and parent community, now seems a fixture.

“The development of the Wellness Team has really made a difference”, says Pontes, “Now, with fewer distractions and more student eagerness for learning, we can take better advantage of our coaches, our planning time together, and our extended hours”. Those critical extra hours were made available by the district and agreed to by new Doran teachers. “That negotiation, tricky at first for teachers”, says Myatt, “has made both a symbolic and a performance difference”. Teachers get compensated for extra time and they use it well, with Pontes regularly polling the staff via her Leadership Team for how that time could be best served. The investment in an expanded Leadership Team, another component suggested by Myatt, has enabled the school to build capacity among staff to understand big picture ideas and leadership dilemmas. “It’s Deb Meier’s old quote, ‘teachers should spend some time thinking like a principal, and vice versa’” says Myatt. “We needed to take a ‘living system’ approach, not just your typical ‘site council’ or ILT, but a group that could learn and grow in the dynamic and high-stakes Level IV setting”.

Teacher Alexis Norton-Williams, a 5-year Doran veteran says she is enjoying her best year of teaching ever. Not only does she feel she has finally put together a solid teaching tool belt, but the school has now become a highly collaborative community. “Years ago, it seemed that every teacher was just out to survive on their own. I like learning from mistakes, talking about professional practice and we do that now”. Norton-Williams carries that into Leadership Team meetings, where the many teacher representatives can disagree and challenge each other and the administration, in the spirit of making the school better for adults and children.  Norton-Williams and Pontes agree that teachers now show little anxiety about sharing their viewpoints in a way that once might have seemed impossible.

Pontes, says, Myatt, “has modeled a concrete approach to sharing leadership, to the school’s good fortune. Maria invested time and resources with ERC support early on for retreats for the Wellness and Leadership Teams, in order to build new skills and capacity. We could have just sat people down together and winged it, but we’ve benefitted from a more studious and well-paced development of these ‘organisms’ within the school, places that need to be highly functional. I’m fond of reminding people in districts and schools in recovery that ‘you can’t afford even one bad meeting’. Maria has taken that to heart and grown a new set of leadership skills to complement her drive and determination.”

Math Coach and lead designer of the new Doran Middle Years initiative, Brian Raposo, attributes a part of the success to the school having become a place where adults can find a safe but challenging zone in which to grow. He, too, cites a sense of urgency as a new dimension to the school’s work, but importantly, he also hears less about “how can we fix the kids?” and more of “how can we get better?” As a former middle school teacher, coach, and math scholar he brings the advantage of seeing a longer continuum of math learning. “I can bring a sense of where it needs to go from the early grades on, and provide a fuller rationale for decisions we might make, or change, about concepts, depth, etc.” he says.

Raposo also acknowledges that he and others at the Doran seem to enjoy a richer professional life that some others in the district, including access to consultants, conferences, readings, tools and more high-level conversation. “It’s been professionally beneficial to me. Our staff wants new ideas, and we’re doing things like making videos in classrooms and analyzing them to support teachers. That’s unlikely in many other schools. Its exhausting but energizing”, concludes Raposo.

First year ESL Teacher Wendy Bandi represents another new dimension on the Doran team as a part of Fall River’s first Teach For America cohort of 10 members. Bandi is high-energy, bright and determined and also brings a policy studies background to her work. She felt that in order to someday contribute to the policy dialogue she needed to be on the front lines. “You can’t understand the work unless you’ve been in, and part of, a school community” says Bandi. Pontes says that Bandi is growing quickly into the job. Bandi adds, “We received an impressive welcome as TFA members coming to Fall River. We had a luncheon with the Mayor and parent and community members and a panel. It was clearly important to them and that helped make it more important to us”.

This complicated turn-around recipe is paying off. Never one for complacency, Pontes is quick to add, “We’re not there yet, but we’re miles ahead of where we were, we’re making slow and steady progress and we’re only going to get better!”