To understand urban education, walk in the principal’s shoes

She got on the phone with facilities people to get the heating system working, met with two guidance counselors about arrangements for Spirit Day, caught up with another administrator about making sure teachers had turned in student grades, negotiated with a School Department researcher about an up-coming health and wellness survey and how best to keep it from intruding on class time, discussed the whereabouts of a missing staff person with her administrative assistants, dropped by science and English classes to observe, supervised the lines in the lunchroom to make sure food lines didn’t back up and made sure students were cleaning trash off the tables, met with a program director to determine if it was appropriate for the school to apply for a particular science and math grant and discussed budget and union realities with a visitor.
That was a scant half day’s activities for the remarkable Emilia Pastor, Headmaster of Boston Latin Academy. Over five years of observing school activities as part of the Boston Plan for Excellence’s Principal for a Day (PFAD) program, I understand this range and level of activity happens across the city. Cosponsored by the Boston Plan for Excellence  and the Boston Public Schools, with support from Bank of America, the PFAD program seeks to involve business and civic leaders in city schools.

Boston Latin Academy is one of three exam schools in the city. It used to be Girls’ Latin School, which I attended as a 7th-grader. It was a much different education back then, much more rote memorization, for example. (As I pulled into the Latin Academy parking lot, my mind was reeling through the list of intransitive verbs and recapitulating the sixth canto of Sir Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel.) Literature classes today break down into small groups to discuss and analyze, compare and contrast. The students, whatever the course, are really engaged in the learning process.

To graduate from Latin Academy, students entering in Grade 7 have six years of English, 5 years of Math, including pre-calculus , 5 years of science, 4 years of Latin plus 3 years of a second language (Spanish, French, Chinese, Japanese) and 5 years of history. The student body today is ethnically diverse, and nearly half the students quality for free or reduced-price school meals. The students here fare very well on MCAS, but the focus at Latin Academy looks well beyond MCAS to Advanced Placement and SAT scores. One hundred percent are college bound.

As wonderful a school as it is, Latin Academy, like others around the city, is not without problems. Budget cuts have had an impact. Teachers have been laid off, which translates into some students having two study halls a day rather than one. When a 10th grade writing class turns into a study hall, it is dispiriting.

Union regulations also have an effect across the system, limiting a principal’s ability to put together the very best team of teachers. Teachers who get laid off from so-called underperforming schools may have first dibs on positions that open up in other schools. Getting rid of teachers who don’t work out is a daunting challenge. I have observed many dedicated and inspiring teachers, but principals should be able to decide how to help those with potential to be better and not have to dilute their teams with those who aren’t up to the task.

AFL-CIO chief Robert Haynes, speaking at a Boston Plan for Excellence/Bank of America luncheon after the school visits, seemed to interpret even questioning the impact of the teacher hiring rules as an attack on all teachers. It is not. But the system needs to be able to differentiate the good from the not so good, help those who can improve to do so, and focus on what’s in the students’ best interests.

There’s also a shortage of computers, with around 50 on the premises for more than 1700 students. Only half may have computer access at home. Companies can donate their “gently used” computers to Project Refresh in the Boston School Systems. Not as easy perhaps for individual donors because it costs about $150 to make them ready for classroom use. It costs $600 to make a room ready for wireless.

Despite the problems and the day-to-day struggles, a visit to Boston Latin Academy is a reminder that urban education can work very well. But it will take the support of more than just political, business and civic leaders to communities to make sure that we don’t sacrifice students on the altar of balanced budgets and counterproductive labor rules.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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