On Board with Grove Hall PrepBy Michael Blanding
School is starting in two weeks at Grove Hall Preparatory Charter School, a brand-new school in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, and for a half-hour this morning, the teachers have been discussing where students should put their hands. It may seem like an inconsequential detail in the monumental task before them — but it’s indicative of the level of care the 11 staff members have put in to getting everything right.
“We sometimes forget the process of learning how to do school,” says Marisa Segel, Ed.M.’08, who teaches English language arts. “We are teaching students to be students, and what does it look like to pay attention — where are your legs, where are your eyes, where are your hands?”
A school can sometimes seem like an immovable object — a brick-and-blackboard anchor for a community, educating generations of students. But what does it take to actually create one from the ground up? Segel is one of five HGSE alumni (along with one F.A.S. alum) who will answer that question for the new school that opened on Dorchester’s Harvard Street this fall. Thankfully they didn’t have to start from scratch, since the school is an offshoot of one of the first and most successful charter schools in the nation, Roxbury Preparatory Charter School, which was founded in 1999 by Evan Rudall, Ed.M.’97, and Harvard University alum John B. King. Even so, the pioneers see this as an opportunity to put their own stamp on the school.
“What’s exciting is learning how to articulate what we are and why we enforce particular rules or approach teaching and learning in particular ways,” says Debby Previna, Ed.M.’97, Ed.D.’11, codirector and principal of the school. “What do you do with the second generation? What part of your parents do you take on and what part do you make your own?”
Roxbury Prep is known for its strict discipline, including mandatory uniforms of blue shirts and khaki pants; long school days lasting eight hours or more; and a firm code of conduct that forbids things such as speaking in the hallways. Combined with teacher support and family outreach, the rigor has paid off hugely. Last year, 100 percent of eighth graders passed Massachusetts statewide exams in math and English, with 96 and 98 percent respectively scoring “proficient or advanced,” compared to a state average of 78 and 48 percent, and a Boston average of 59 percent and 28 percent.
“It’s been criticized for being too strict, but all of those rules are really about how can we maximize the time for learning,” says Segel, a former Roxbury Prep teacher. “That’s why our kids in sixth grade start off reading three grades behind and then by eighth grade they are reading Animal Farm and Hamlet.” In order to motivate students, classrooms are named after colleges; if they slouch too much in class, the teacher will yell out, ‘Ready to be…’ And the students expected to call back, ‘Scholars!’
Despite the success of their parent school, however, the teachers at Grove Hall Prep are revisiting the process whereby students buy into the philosophy of the school — a process they call “on-boarding.” This morning, they walk through the process by which students come into class, which they distill down into the ‘three S’s”: silent, sit down, and (organize your) stuff.
“I think kids feel more successful when they know what to do,” says Teresa Rodriguez, Ed.M.’96, who teaches ancient history. As a graduate school counselor at Roxbury Prep, Rodriguez saw firsthand the problems experienced by students who had trouble adjusting to the rigor of the school; by being more explicit about the process early, the teachers at Grove Hall Prep hope to cushion the transition.
The space inhabited by Grove Hall Prep is unique in more ways than one. It’s tucked into the basement of a residential home for seniors who are raising their grandchildren. A child’s playground sits right outside the entrance. Inside, the school is a labyrinth of rooms with tiled floors and bright yellow walls. “We didn’t have enough space for a separate teachers lounge,” says Segel, pointing out the adult desks cordoned off only by a couple of pillars from her classroom. “They are going to put up some kind of soundproof material, it won’t be perfect, but it will work.”
Because it lacks space, the school will make use of the facilities in the surrounding community. For physical education, students will use the Boys & Girls Club and the Tennis Sportsmen Club down the street; for weekly school assemblies they will use space at Greater Love Tabernacle. “We have to be more of a community,” says Segel. “We are dependent on Dorchester and Grove Hall as a part of the classroom in a way that Roxbury Prep just didn’t have to be.”
Despite its modest beginnings, however, the new school is part of an ambitious expansion by Roxbury Prep, the first of three middle schools and a new high school recently authorized by the state. This year, 75 students have started at Grove Hall Prep in 5th grade, with the intention of adding another class every year through high school — eventually reaching a total of 900 students in the four schools by the time this entering class graduates in 2019.
As the charter school network expands, it will deal with new challenges for adults as well as students. Teachers at Roxbury Prep have gotten used to working 60 or 70 hour weeks, meaning by necessity the school has self-selected young teachers unencumbered by family duties. Now adding the pressure of developing a new school with only 11 staff members instead of 40, Grove Hall has to be conscious of avoiding burnout.
“If anything the work increases when you are starting a new school,” says Mara Rodriguez, Ed.M.’08, who teaches math. “The numerator increases, but the denominator is only one-fourth as big. We have to realize we are not going to be able to do everything in year one the same as we did before.”
In part, that means maximizing how they use their extended-day program to incorporate tutoring and minimizing the amount of Saturday programming offered. But it also means putting the question of teacher sustainability under the same microscope they’ve put on on-boarding students.
“We have never had a director who is a mom before,” says Segel. “How do we do the work as well as we do and have families? Now that we are in the second generation of charter schools, that will be a challenge.” As they grapple with that question, they will benefit from the culture of teacher-training from Roxbury Prep. The teachers use words like “dignified” and “professional” to describe the attitude there, which focuses on individual mentoring and guiding each teacher to create her or his own curriculum. Now they will look for that support from Previna, whom they describe as a visionary leader.
“What she has done really well is set the tone and values of the school,” says Mara Rodriguez, citing principles such as educating all students regardless of need and prioritizing links with families. “A good leader recognizes she can’t be involved every single decision you take, but if she is adamant this is the mission, then everyone in the organization can align their individual actions to that.”
For her part, Previna insists she is a teacher first, getting those same highs and butterflies in talking with teachers as she used to get from the classroom. And in many ways, she is also still a student, putting into practice the lessons from her own training.
“The most beautiful thing about this role is the marriage of theory and practice,” she says. “You have to wrestle with ideas about what it takes to ’do school‘ and be academically successful and then you have to make concrete decisions about what and how to teach students to achieve academically.”
As the teachers at Grove Hall prep ”on-boarded” their first group of students last fall, it was the beginning, not the end of that process.