COO Orchard Gardens Urban Public School
Turnaround is a complex thing, but we did all the things that research had shown worked, put them all together in one place, and I think the results have been beyond our wildest dreams and the kids have risen to the occasion.
Interview by Heidi Legg
This week all across America, students went back to school and I have been thinking a great deal about the inequality between public school and private school, along with the ever-increasing cost of college.
As a parent at a private school with all the amenities and support most will only dream of experiencing, I feel great guilt when I see that so many kids in America don’t have even close to those privileges. And while most kids who roam the public hallways (I was one of them) will likely end up with more perseverance and grit when they graduate than those with private fields and opportunity that is not an argument for why it is OK that America’s education system is such a mess. Some public schools in Brookline, Ross, and Greenwich, as well as other super zip codes are as good as private, but most are not. There are amazing people doing amazing things in classrooms with barely the supplies they need. And today, I want to introduce you to Michelle Boyers, one of the change agents behind Orchard Gardens School.
Michelle walked out of the hallowed halls of Harvard Business School and said we can make changes. She has turned one of Boston’s worst performing inner city schools, Orchard Gardens, into a beehive of learning.
Orchard Gardens K-8 School serves more than 850 students, nearly all of whom live below the Federal poverty line and more than 50% of whom are learning English. From its opening in 2003 until 2010, Orchard Gardens was one of the five lowest performing schools in Massachusetts. Situated in Roxbury, the school was built as part of the redevelopment of a formerly notorious, run-down housing project with a reputation for drugs, high crime rates, and gang violence. Leadership turnover (six principals in seven years) and a greater than 50% teacher turnover rate per year created massive instability for the students. Student behavior was a significant problem, and the school halls were chaotic and unsafe. In a 2009 survey, 50% of Orchard Garden students reported that they expected to be bullied at school. As a result, focus on learning often took a back seat to behavior management. The student failure rate on the MCAS exam was one of the highest in the Commonwealth. Only 6% of Orchard Gardens’ students were Proficient in Math and only 13% were Proficient in English Language Arts.
My interview with Michelle Boyers not only inspired me and moved me, but also incited me to write about it. What can those of us who are safely entrenched in our private schools or suburban public schools do to help? Lots.
Call your congress and senate representatives and tell them you want more funding for schools like Orchard Gardens in Roxbury. Write checks directly to those public schools or to T3 (Turnaround Teacher Teams), who compensate high performing teachers for taking on leadership roles in failing schools, or to Teach for America who pay the brightest college grads to spend two years teaching, or volunteer an afternoon to share your life experience or tutor.
Many of us have ideas like this on our to do list, but we are trying to keep our own heads up while we raise our kids. Yet because we have kids, we are most aware of how much it takes to educate a child and still don’t make the time or have the extra time and dollars at this point in our lives. Instead, we pay astronomical bills for private schools and college funds, hoping to support our own. In my very smallest way, I can write about it. It pales in comparison to the hundreds of volunteer hours and big checks some write around us, but if you help me and send this interview to others, maybe we can make a dent. Michelle Boyers has.
When you left HBS, what were you trying to solve?
The big thing that I felt so passionately about was the huge educational inequity that exists in the United States between kids who have and kids who have not. We talk a lot about the achievement gap between White and Asian kids and Black and Hispanic kids and, for me, it's actually an opportunity gap. That gap starts from the minute you're born, based on the zip code you're born into and your family’s level of income. It often impacts the quality of school you attend and it starts from day one. The quality of education and schools that most poor, urban children have access to is only furthering how far apart they will be from their wealthier peers.
How did “Education Change Agent” fall on your radar when leaving Harvard Business School (HBS)?
Before HBS, I was working in investment banking and private equity, and then my brother died of AIDS and it was just this huge wakeup call for me. What do I get up and do every day?
I felt this urgency to somehow make a difference with my life. It started with me wanting to feel like I woke up for something that actually mattered. I was doing a lot of volunteer work with Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) in New York and the Boston-New York AIDS Ride. I noticed that on the days that I knew I was going to be going to GMHC, I just felt more excited to get up in the morning. I just knew that my day suddenly had a real purpose versus (albeit crass to say) making rich people richer.
It was a logical breaking point. Do I continue on in this career and push further to be an associate and then VP or do I go back to school?
In the nonprofits where I was working, most were managed by social workers. I felt like they could be even more effective if they were being run a bit more like a business. I wanted to build on this idea of management and leadership inside nonprofits.
There's a ten year jump between when I graduated from HBS and when we started the turnaround at Orchard Gardens. I initially spent my first couple of years working in a venture philanthropy fund in Cambridge called New Profit, and we worked with a whole range of social sector organizations from health care to community development, including education and after school. It was there that I started working with organizations like Teach For America and New Leaders For New Schools.
Once I started to learn about this whole new social sector called Education, it just became so apparent to me that the root cause of so many of the other issues that we are dealing with later in life, around homelessness or other, begins way back at day one. The public schools in urban communities aren’t giving kids a quality education, nor giving them this platform to jump off and fly.
Mayor Menino decided to turn around Orchard Gardens public school in Roxbury. It was in pretty rough shape. Who tagged you?
The principal here at Orchard Gardens, Andrew Bott, brought me on. I really want to emphasize that it was an extraordinary team of people that worked collectively to turn the school around. It included the principal, me (as COO), the Academy Directors, community members, and most importantly the incredible teachers and teacher-leaders who are so committed and talented and work so hard everyday. Principal Bott in particular is an inspiring and visionary leader and without him none of the rest of us would've been successful.
In 2010, Superintendant Johnson targeted twelve of the lowest performing schools and by federal law was required to change the leadership in those schools. She hired Andrew Bott as the new principal for Orchard Gardens who I knew from my previous work and for whom I had a ton of respect. I felt like this was a chance to prove all our theories around what it would take to create a great school. If we were given all the autonomy and resources and flexibilities and basically work from a clean slate, we could prove them.
How did it go?
Two years later, we had the highest growth, in combined ELA and Math, of any middle school and any large school of any size over 750 students in the state. The percent gains were close to 75% growth in ELA and 115% in Math.
One of my goals going into this was to take all these theories that I had from the policy world and the funding world and say if you really applied them to a school, what would it take to really change a school?
And we were given the chance to do this. In fact, we agreed that with all of this autonomy and decision-making control, and given these extra resources, that if we couldn’t turn this school around, it should be closed down.
We've proven and created a blueprint that it works when a school is actually given autonomy - to staff your school with the types of teachers you need and to have the right leader and extend the school day where you need it. Most schools never have that chance, but we had the autonomy to do whatever it took to change the school and we did. And as a result of it, the school is completely transformed.
We now have a blueprint for what it takes for a successful school turnaround. Unfortunately there are very few examples around the country of failing urban schools that have truly been transformed into high quality schools. But now we have a proof point in Boston. My hope is that we can build the political will now. Autonomy - Qualified or proven school leaders being given complete control over things that maybe run counter to union contracts such as extending the school day, or replacing teachers - works.
We replaced 80% of the staff in the building when we came in and brought a whole new leadership team. Most public school leaders don't have the ability to do that. They get what they get because of union rules. We were given the chance to really make sure we had an excellent teacher in every classroom.
Turnaround is a complex thing, but we did all the things that research had shown worked, put them all together in one place, and I think the results have been beyond our wildest dreams and the kids have risen to the occasion.
Orchard Gardens is one of the highest poverty schools in the city with around a 91% poverty rate. Fifty of our kids at any given time are homeless or in transitional housing. We have students who are roughly 40% Black and 60% Hispanic. More than 50% of them are English language learners. We have a whole strand of K through 8 of students and about fifty students with autism.
How many with autism?
Forty-eight… 48 kids K to 8 with autism. So, you've got language challenges. You've got learning challenges, behavior challenges, and then huge poverty issues.
But those aren't excuses at all for why kids can't learn. It's that we're not doing enough and the adults in the building haven't done enough to make sure that those kids have what they need.
With our blueprint it is possible and it changes the dialogue around what kids need and what schools need to be able to successfully serve kids who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
What public opinion do you want to change?
There are two things: Autonomy around managing public schools. High poverty kids can't be top-down hamstrung by union rules and district policies and all these things that we do because we're a large city. School leaders, if they're really going to be charged with turning around a failing school, need to find a great person who's got the talent to do it and then let them do what they need to do. Get out of their way!
In Boston, the district got out of our way and let us replace 80% of the staff. That's unheard of. You don't get to do that as a school leader. We had the opportunity to start from scratch and say we want an awesome teacher in every room and we're going to recruit them from all over the place, all over the country, from charter schools and private schools. I think that it's that autonomy piece that's probably the most important message the public can rally around.
The second is rethinking this big idea around teacher reform. One of the big reforms happening in education is around more accountability for teachers. This whole movement to begin evaluating teachers based on student test scores has created this feeling like it's a blame game on teachers.
What I take out of what's happened at Orchard Gardens is that great teachers who are supported properly, who are given a voice, and who are empowered can make the difference. There are teachers out there who want to learn and grow, they want to get better and they want to be accountable, but this whole movement around teachers based on their performance shouldn't be about blame or finger pointing. It should be first and foremost about the kids and wanting to support great teachers, and investing in them and empowering them rather than this punitive outcome.
Why should this be one of our top social movements?
Obviously, there's the social injustice of it all. If you're human, you should care when kids aren't given opportunities or not given an education that's allowing them to succeed to their fullest potential. You should care about that on a human level, but we should care about this on an economic level.
We are leaving behind too many children who are smart and capable and could do so much more, but our education system is failing them and as a result of that, they are dropping out. They're not graduating. They're not even getting basics, let alone going to college. They're not finishing high school and we should care deeply about what happens to those kids who drop out. Their options are very few and they mostly involve crime. We should care about what that does to the communities we live in, but also about the huge missed opportunity, talent, and potential these kids have to offer.
Our schools are going to have to change dramatically and we collectively as a society and as a community are going to have to take the bold action like we took at Orchard Gardens if we're really going to create any change. Bold, aggressive changes are necessary.
What do you wake up thinking about?
That Orchard Gardens is in a three year 'turnaround phase,' and I put that in quotes because the extra resources and the extra support will end soon. We are losing about a million dollars a year in federal funding that we've had for the past three years because we are 'ending the turnaround phase'. I am very worried about it and I don’t just think about it in the morning when I wake up, but all night long: Will the state and the district and everyone walk away and say, 'mission accomplished?'
We've had such extraordinary success in these first three years but the school is far from turned around. Our proficiency levels are up from a single digit 6% to 40-50% depending on the grade level and subject area, but far from what you or I would ever consider good enough for our kids. And so this notion of how do we have a sustained turnaround for the long haul so that Orchard Gardens truly does become a top school in the city and the state. There's no reason why it can't be, yet if all the resources are pulled and the school returns to a 1:30 pm dismissal where 850 kids walk out the door versus 5:30 pm as we do today, it won’t work. There is no question that Orchard Gardens will immediately slip back into its previous state of low performance if the resources go away.
Because the problems are so big and so complicated, I think we're quick in the education sector to have a short attention span to try new things and move on to the next task.
How can we help?
The turnaround of this school was made possible by some legislation passed in early 2010 that allowed for us to do things like replace 80% of the teachers and extend the school day. It gave us certain rights in these low-performing schools, and there's legislation currently underway to extend those and expand them to other schools. There are groups like Stand For Children that are convening and organizing broader parent communities to lobby for this kind of legislative action.
You can also have a group from your company come in and be Citizen teachers. Twice a week between 2:30 and 5:30, teams come in from companies like Verizon and Google and teach kids about engineering or robotics or these great real-life career-oriented skills. It helps expose them to careers and exciting ways to apply all the academic skills they're learning during the day. You can volunteer through Citizen Schools. You can volunteer through Boston Partners in Education. You can encourage your kids to take a gap year and do City Year where they do service work in public schools. We have 18 City Year corps members who are young kids either before college or a year after college, and they come and serve in a high-poverty school that's trying to turn around. Or encourage your kids to take two years and join Teach For America and learn what it's really like to be a teacher in a high-poverty urban school or a rural district that is often ignored and underfunded.
Even if people only have an afternoon or two a week to come in and help or do some tutoring on a Friday, it helps. Those are the kind of things that make a big difference in a school like this. Caring adults working individually with students who become caring adult role models and mentors to kids have an enormous impact.
There are ways to support Orchard Gardens. On our website, there's a link to being able to give: OG's donation page http://orchardgardensk8.org/donate/
It doesn't feel very systemic to me as it’s very focused on Orchard Gardens, but it helps fill the million-dollar void we will have now that the turnaround phase is over.
We are trying to figure out how to continue to raise resources to support the most critical things that have had the biggest impact on our student's success over the past three years. We need to raise private funds as well as public funds to continue to support a scaled-down version of the turnaround so we're not just walking away and pulling the plug and falling off a cliff.
What is the difference between what you are doing and Teach For America (TFA)?
We work together. Teach For America is a huge partner of ours. A large percentage of our staff is alumni of the TFA program. We wanted to make sure there was an excellent teacher in every classroom, and we worked with TFA to recruit a couple of corps members who are novice teachers. We have one or two every year, but more importantly we reached out to all the people who've gone through the program and are continuing to stay in teaching. They have the experience we need here. They've worked in the kinds of classrooms and urban settings like Orchard Gardens, and they've had real demonstrated success in helping kids make more than a year's worth of academic growth in a year. Our kids are often years behind grade levels. We consider TFA a core partner to what we've done.
Orchard Gardens has been celebrated this past year. Tell us about it.
The BBC World News did a great profile of how we've used the arts as one of the levers in turning around the school. It's called The Power of Art. For a number of students their whole engagement in school has changed dramatically because we now have such a flourishing comprehensive arts program. It's a great video on BBC World News. The White House recently named us as one of eight schools around the country for their Turnaround Arts Initiative.
You are a young mother of two. What is your typical day?
We are up between 6:00 and 6:30 with a two year old and a four year old so there's no sleeping in! I drop off at school and then sometimes I work from home or sometimes from the school. I am currently doing a great deal of fundraising and grant writing and strategic planning so I spend a lot of time with the principal. We are co-planning what the next three years will look like, so I spend time between here at the school and working from home where it's quiet so I can write up grants. I wrap up at 5:30 when my nanny leaves.
Who gives many of these grants?
Local foundations. Family foundations. Corporate foundations. We have a lot of meetings with them and I spend a lot of time taking people around the building and touring the school. People come from all over the country to see Orchard Gardens because it's unfortunately one of the few schools that is truly turning around. Everyone from superintendents and principals of other large districts to funders to teachers in training from universities to grant givers has come through. There is a constant flow of people wanting to see the school and it's one of the things that I love to do. The amazing teachers, the kids so engaged and just doing such high level work makes me proud and people are pretty impressed.
How did you attract the high performing teachers? Is there a financial incentive?
At Orchard Gardens, a quarter of our teachers are in formal leadership roles through an important program called T-3 (Turnaround Teacher Teams) where they take on formal leadership roles in the building and get paid an additional $6,000 stipend to take that on. They run grade level teams, content area teams, they take on a bunch of special initiatives and they are truly part of the leadership of the school. You can't turn around a school this large and this complex with a small leadership team. They hold the mission of the entire school in their hands and champion change and take on real pieces of work around helping to lead that change. I think it is so important not only because it's made a huge difference in a school like Orchard Gardens, but it's a chance for us to recognize and reward them for their effectiveness as a teacher and that's something our current public school compensation systems don't allow us to do. So, this is a way to be able to pay great teachers extra and to recognize their success as both a teacher and a leader.
How much are they paid above their salary?
That’s not very much. Can the public help?
They are currently running a fundraising campaign at T3 for just that. You can donate here.
There are more and more micro non-profits focused on high school kids in the Boston area like Year Up, Teach for America, T3, Stepping Stone, and the Epiphany School. Can you help us sort it out when looking at who to support?
There are a number of outstanding education reform organizations in Boston doing really important work:
Teach Plus, Teach for America, City Year, Year Up, Unlocking Potential, Achievement Network, BELL, Citizen Schools, uAspire
…Among others. They address the educational inequity that has existed for too long. The reality is wealthier students have access to higher quality schools than students of color and students living in poverty. Many of these organizations are working collaboratively with one another to tackle this complex challenge from different angles.
To turn around Orchard Gardens, we needed a network of partners to address the substantial needs of our students. We recruited outstanding new teachers from TFA, trained and supported experienced teacher-leaders with Teach Plus, leveraged City Year corps members to provide additional mentoring and tutoring to students, and utilized Achievement Network tests to regularly assess our students' learning and use the data from those tests to improve our teaching or reteach when necessary. We created a longer, richer school day with high quality after-school partners including BELL and Citizen Schools. Unfortunately most large urban school districts are dysfunctional, entrenched bureaucracies that rarely work efficiently and effectively to accelerate dramatic change and build on successes. As a result, we need non-profits to demonstrate new solutions and scale innovative, entrepreneurial models and approaches that are designed to create real, lasting change in public schools.
I focus my time and philanthropy on organizations that are not just helping a set number of kids, but who are working to break down the underlying systemic barriers that have led to the education crisis that currently exists for kids in Boston and other urban communities.
What websites do you read daily?
The blogs that I read daily are:
What event are you most looking forward to?
The November 7th book release in Boston of a new book written by teachers at Teach Plus
Favorite spot for a cocktail?
Oh, Toro… that's easy. They have a good wine list and the food is awesome. It's the one place where I eat almost entirely vegetarian. I'm a huge carnivore and I eat almost entirely vegetarian there. It's all so flavorful.
My trainer at Health Works would be my secret source. Tara Schuling.
Michelle now works as the Director of Education in SanFrancisco with the Shusterman Family Foundaton.