Samuel Mason Elementary School
At the Samuel Mason Elementary School, situated in an old warehouse district in Boston, the students aren't the only ones learning more than ever before. From secretary to teacher to principal, every staff member here is required to formulate a personal development plan each September. Although all of the teachers by now have obtained dual certification in regular and special education, they are still expected to continuously identify what they don't yet know and to structure their learning accordingly. Summer and release-day time is set aside for school-wide work, and creative scheduling throughout the year enables grade-level teams and study groups to meet once a week during the normal school day to discuss upcoming efforts. Lead teachers in each subject area are available to assist others with incorporating new practices.
If all this sounds like a radical approach to system-wide professional development, it should -- if only because drastic situations call for such measures. A controlled-choice public school in the Roxbury neighborhood of the city -- a predominately African American enclave -- the Samuel Mason faced the threat of closure in the 1980s due to poor performance. It ranked as the school least-chosen by parents in Boston, at the bottom of a list of 79. It was only when Principal Mary Russo took the helm in 1990, bringing with her a comprehensive professional development plan which turned the school upside down, that the Samuel Mason began to undergo a dramatic shift in student performance and public perceptions.
"We asked ourselves, 'What do kids who are excellent readers and writers look like, and where are people doing the best job of teaching kids to read and write well?'" says Russo. "And then we designed together the best way to make those things happen here, and the best way to get people here trained to be able to do those things."
Russo's emphasis on continuous needs assessment and her willingness to build in time for individual and team efforts have yielded stark results: an improvement in student achievement in reading and writing that has surpassed that of the Boston schools as a whole and an enrollment that has more than doubled, from 133 to 296. Today, the Samuel Mason is the 12th most-selected school in the city. Parents are drawn to the "Bright Start" program for kindergartners, the increased use of technology for learning, and the literacy program that enables students to read to community members and business professionals.
"For us, it was a powerful turnaround story, because our school had been a school that traditionally had failed children," says Russo. "About a third of the kids were not reading on grade level at any other time in the history of the school. And we reversed those statistics."
Still, the process has not been an easy one, and some teachers chose to leave at the outset. At a K-5 school that draws students from several nearby housing projects, where 74 percent of the pupils qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch and 26 percent receive special education services, faculty members here already faced a challenging set of circumstances. But to Russo, this meant only that training efforts would need to make it possible for every teacher to become equipped to support the students before them.
At the beginning of every school year, the designated Professional Development Team, comprised of teachers, parents, and Russo, prepares the yearly school improvement plan that aligns professional development activities with the goals for student achievement. Grade-level teams select a set of strategies to learn and then use weekly meetings to study and apply them. Teachers compile student achievement data each month in order to assess impacts and identify trouble spots.
Other components of the plan include whole-school training events, school-based and external workshops, study groups, coaching, mentoring, model classrooms, summer externships, grant-funded release days, and the creation of a Family Center for parents. Teachers are also working with local colleges to develop a Samuel Mason reading curriculum, and outside consultants are used along with school staff who have special expertise. As Russo sees it, teachers who are given the time and the tools hold the power to veritably transform their own schools.
"The word that comes to mind when I think of professional development is 'reciprocity,'" she explains. "If you're asking people to change their teaching practice, to do the work that it takes to do that, the reciprocal part is that you need to give them the supports and the time that they need. But we have to awaken to the notion that we can create what we need and that we don't have to have other people telling us what to do, although we do need their support. At this point there's a real expertise that got built up in the school, and that's not going to evaporate. That's going to continue to be strong."