This morning, the Learning Lab team at Boston’s WBUR station aired a story about UP Academy Holland, our network’s most recently opened school and one of only four Level 5 turnaround schools in Massachusetts history. This was the second piece reported by the station about the school in the last few weeks. Unfortunately, for the second time in a row, WBUR failed to provide a fair portrayal of the successes and challenges that are present every day at UP Academy Holland.
As many of you know, our organization, UP Education Network, exists because our education system in Massachusetts, while among the best in the nation, still suffers from rampant inequities. In 2015, 10,500 students were enrolled in Level 4 or Level 5 elementary or middle schools in Massachusetts (these are the most severe cases, indicating chronic underperformance). Of these students, nearly 80% attend schools in three cities: Boston, Lawrence, and Springfield.
As part of our mission, we have been asked by school districts and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, to restart five – soon to be six – chronically underperforming schools in the three aforementioned cities. By and large, our students’ progress in the district school turnaround context has been nationally unprecedented. Three out of our five schools were designated Level 1 schools within three years of restart and our two most recently restarted schools are well on their way to meeting this same goal. That is to say, our schools have rapidly gone from being some of the lowest-performing schools in the state to some of the highest-performing schools in the state. More importantly, the students achieving these results are the very same students who had attended the schools prior to our involvement.
Our students’ and our schools’ accomplishments do not mean that the work is easy, or that we have all the answers. In fact, the opposite is true: the work is extraordinarily hard and fraught with challenges, and there are few other school improvement efforts that serve as exemplars. In partnership with local school districts and the state, we are forging a new path for school transformation, and we readily admit that we have stumbled, and will likely continue to stumble along the way.
But we are very much a growing and learning organization, and we make concerted efforts to receive constructive and constant feedback from our partners and fellow educators. We try innovative things: sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. When they don’t, we own it. We change it. And we try again. At the same time, we will not allow our self-admitted areas of growth, and the hard work of our school-based staff, our families, and our students to be mischaracterized to advance agendas aimed at protecting a status quo that has failed students. At the heart of all of our actions is an unwavering belief that students come first; that students can achieve anything, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds and schooling history; and, that we must keep an ever-high bar for what we expect of ourselves. It is with this mindset that we are committed to providing students with the education that they so desperately deserve.
This brings me to WBUR’s coverage of UP Academy Holland. The WBUR stories focus on one issue: behavior management and support practices at the school. As the receiver of the school, UP Education Network provides support, guidance, and various checks and balances to ensure that we are following important and complex state guidelines and protocols at all times. Our suspension numbers during UP Academy Holland’s first year in operation were high. Year one of turnaround is marked by many challenges: students are adjusting to new expectations and teachers are working around-the-clock to get to know students and understand their needs. We do not hide behind excuses – we should have focused more quickly on finding better support strategies, especially for our youngest scholars, to manage situations that posed a safety risk to students and to staff in the building. We learn from our work on a daily basis. In that regard, we made the decision to no longer issue suspensions to kindergarten students. This is something that few other schools in the state have done, and it will be a practice through which I’m sure we can all learn. As we look ahead, we realize that this new model is an opportunity for us to work harder and smarter to ensure that all our students and our staff are safe at all times.
At the same time, we deeply believe that every family and every student should know and feel that our schools can support their needs. Our schools are committed to doing whatever it takes to work with families in a spirit of true partnership. This is what we’ve always done and what we will always continue to do.
The WBUR stories also fail to capture the truly remarkable progress taking place at the school and the feeling of joy and pride that permeate the UP Academy Holland team, staff, and students alike. The WBUR reporter witnessed our incredible morning motivation at the school, which is a time for students to come together as a community to celebrate successes and get inspired for the day. On the morning he visited, the students were kicking off Women’s History Month by learning about First Lady Michelle Obama. It was a magical moment that was not highlighted in any way. The story also did not showcase that the school managed to keep more students throughout last school year than the John P. Holland Elementary School had prior to becoming UP Academy Holland. In fact, school year attrition declined by almost 70%. This tells us that families believe in the work that we are doing, and they believe in the amazing successes that they are seeing for their students. The story also failed to describe how prior to restart in 2014, only 5% and 16% of John P. Holland 4th graders could read or do math at grade level or higher. After just one year of restart, these same students, as 5th graders at UP Academy Holland, reached proficiency rates of 42% and 34% in ELA and Math respectively. While we still have a lot of work to do to ensure that all students are reading and doing math at grade level, the growth that these students have shown in a short period of time is remarkable.
After one year of turnaround work, when evidence of progress is strong, we are being highlighted only for falling short on something we acknowledge is a challenge. We take this critique to heart and are committed to continually improving. But we are also proud of and must celebrate the strides our students have made in the short time that we’ve been able to work with them. They prove to us that they’ve always been able to achieve at extraordinary high levels — they just haven’t been given the opportunity or the supports to do so.
I would like to conclude by spotlighting and commending UP Academy Holland’s Principal, Jabari Peddie, who lent his voice to this morning’s WBUR story, for his extraordinary and unflagging leadership at the school. He is surrounded by a team of similarly outstanding educators that do seemingly impossible things with a great degree of humility and self-sacrifice. We are very proud of what they do every day in partnership with the amazing UP Academy Holland students and families we are honored to serve. We can’t wait to see the successes our students will achieve next.