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Superintendent's Desk: Willard R. Daggett

A literacy initiative led one school to a brighter future.

June/July 2009

Brockton high school, located about 30 miles south of Boston, is the largest high school in New England. Of the school’s 4,400 students, 71 percent are minorities, 72 percent receive free or reduced lunch, 12 percent are English language learners, and 11 percent have one or more disabilities. Despite these challenges and troubling test scores, Brockton was named the most improved high school in Massachusetts in 2002. How did they do it? Principal Susan Szachowicz implemented a literacy program that caught the attention of many administrators. Within the program’s first year, the percentage of students who reached proficiency increased from 27 percent to 43 percent, and the student failure rate dropped from 41 percent to 23 percent.

Since then, statistics and numerous awards have reaffirmed that the school is on the right track in preparing students for a brighter future.Through a single program, the school developed a systematic approach to set goals, monitor progress, measure student learning, and recognize success. The first step the school took was acknowledging that many of its students were failing.

Acknowledging Failure
When, in 1998, the state first implemented the high-stakes Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), Brockton’s scores were dismal. In English language arts, 44 percent of the students failed and only 22 percent reached proficiency. In math, 76 percent failed and 7 percent reached proficiency.

Szachowicz, who headed the social studies department at the time, assumed a leadership role and quickly organized what would become the Restructuring Committee, the school’s think tank. The committee, which started out with 20 teachers, now comprises 34 teachers and administrators representing every department. “We formed the Committee to examine the MCAS data and figure out where to begin,” Szachowicz says.

The Restructuring Committee decided on literacy as its first schoolwide focus, which evolved into the Literacy Initiative. After months of sometimes spirited discussions, the committee defined literacy in four areas: reading, writing, speaking, and reasoning. It then chose writing—specifically “open-response” writing—as the first phase of the initiative.

As difficult as it was to define which literacy skills to teach, it was far more challenging to train the faculty to teach these skills. As a former history teacher, Szachowicz had never been trained to teach reading and writing. There was a negative undercurrent throughout the school. Comments such as “I teach biology, not English” and “It’s not my job to teach reading” were common. Still, the initiative prevailed.

“By the time testing occurred in April and May, the students were ready,” Szachowicz says.

Reaping the Rewards
The first phase of the Literacy Initiative was implemented in 2001–02, and the results were impressive. Within two years, the failure rate on the MCAS in English language arts dropped from 41 percent to 14 percent, and students reaching proficiency increased from 27 percent in 2000 to 62 percent just two years later.

Other phases of the initiative—such as analyzing difficult reading passages, responding to challenging questions, using summarizing strategies, teaching multiple-choice strategies, and developing speaking skills—have improved student achievement exponentially.

Going Beyond the Test
The initiative has had an immense impact on the lesson structures in core subject areas. Teachers have had to implement lesson plans that encourage students to lead discussions, ask questions, present school projects, and work together in groups.

“It has taken years of hard work and devotion to get where we are today, and we can say we truly are proud of our students and our school,” Szachowicz says. “Brockton High School has gone from an urban school that denied its problem or made excuses ... to one that serves as a national model of what education and student achievement is all about.”        

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