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Sharing the Lessons of School Improvement

One Boston public school, two HGSE school leaders, and the ingredients of whole-school change.
Mona Ford Walker with a student at Winship Elementary

Mona Ford Walker works with a student at Winship Elementary

Photo: Courtesy of Mona Ford Walker

When Harvard Graduate School of Education doctoral student student Mona Ford Walker began her role as principal of the F. Lyman Winship Elementary School in the Brighton section of Boston in 2015, the school was among the lowest performing in Massachusetts. Under Ford Walker’s leadership, things began to change, and in 2018 and 2019 the school was named a Massachusetts School of Recognition — the only within Boston Public Schools (BPS) to receive the designation two years in a row.

This year, under the guidance of another HGSE school leader, Brian Radley, Ed.M.’19, the Winship was selected as the first-place winner of the School on the Move Prize, a sought-after award from the Boston-based school improvement organization EdVestors. The award, which recognizes the Winship for showing three years of continuous school improvement and accelerated student achievement compared to its peers, comes with statewide recognition and a $100,000 prize, to be used however the school decides. Of 125 public schools across the city, only 16 were invited to apply for this award, based on achievement data assessed by EdVestors. Because of its steady improvement across several categories, the Winship was awarded the top spot.

What scalable lessons of improvement can be learned from the Winship’s experience? We sat down with Ford Walker and Radley to learn more about how the Winship’s growth might serve as an example for change across the district and beyond Boston as well.  

Rethink the way you think about learning.

Brian Radley

Brian Radley

When some educators hear the term “experiential education,” they balk. There is a common fear that such pedagogy is not standards-based and cannot meaningfully be aligned to curriculum. But it can be — and at the Winship, it is. The school is committed to experiential learning that extends from the curriculum into students’ daily lives. As an example, Ford Walker tells the story of two staff members at Winship using the recurrence of food waste in the cafeteria as a teaching moment. Rather than letting the students continue to throw away their apples, the staff members collected them and used them for lessons on food production and preparation (even bringing cider presses to school so the scholars could make their own cider), sustainability, and giving back to others. “This academic experience was birthed organically,” says Ford Walker, who is earning a doctor of education leadership at HGSE. “That’s what we have encouraged the team to do. Find these experiences that you can engage kids in that are fun and exciting, but also embedded in crucial learning that is standards-based and that will help students contribute to their communities in impactful and meaningful ways”

Ford Walker and Radley’s shared commitment to experiential learning was inspired by their late mentor, Virginia Chalmers, former principal of the Young Achievers Science and Mathematics Pilot School in Boston, where Ford Walker taught and was a mentor to Radley during his time in HGSE’s School Leadership Program. Ford Walker’s experience with experiential education under Chalmers’ leadership, and as well as her commitment to project-based learning and social justice, allowed her to encourage her teaching team at the Winship to embrace this type of learning experience for all learners.

Start with clear and strong focus — and follow through. 

In 2015, the Winship’s instructional focus was not something anyone knew off the top of their head. “It was a huge, unwieldy paragraph based on common themes drawn from classroom data,” explains Ford Walker. After year one with such a large focus, the school community, including teacher leaders, realized they had a lot to unpack. So they unpacked, zooming in first on a few sentences of the original instructional focus, and later zeroing in on just one area.

“That’s what we have encouraged the team to do. Find these experiences that you can engage kids in that are fun and exciting, but also embedded in crucial learning that is standards-based and that will help students contribute to their communities in impactful and meaningful ways.” – Mona Ford Walker

“We wanted something that was truly meaningful to everyone. Something that they could hold in their minds. We wanted staff, scholars, and families to be able to state the instructional focus and really know it,” Ford Walker explains. “Our focus became creating student-centered learning environments, which we defined as environments that meet the academic, social, emotional, and physical needs of a student. Everything we did as a school community connected to this instructional focus.”

As teachers oriented their work around this focus, “data became a part of our everyday lives,” Ford Walker says. “Our teacher leaders participated in data analysis during instructional leadership team meetings. They collaborated with one another around how to lead their grade level teams in the process of analyzing data and planning next steps based on what the data told us. Our teacher leaders even co-led whole school professional development, which was focused on culturally linguistic sustaining practices.”

To meet student needs, you must know what students need.

Mona Ford Walker outside of  Winship Elementary

Mona Ford Walker

“Part of what makes the Winship so special is that our teachers and staff go to great lengths to get to know our scholars as whole human beings: as scholars, athletes, musicians, and cultural beings who live their language and family lives here at our school,” explains Radley. “This sparks our teachers’ curiosity to design learning experiences that leverage our students’ interests and identities.”

Getting to know scholars as individuals is important to authentically engaging them in their education, but it’s just the first step. Knowing a student means getting to know their family as well. Identifying scholars’ interests outside of the classroom, and using those interests to make deeper connections between scholars and their learning, is crucial, says Ford Walker.

“When we welcome scholars out front in the morning, we always check in with the family member or caregiver who might be dropping a scholar off. Through this informal opportunity, we are able to be present, connect with families, learn about different needs, and warmly welcome all,” explains Ford Walker. “As a school, we are committed to engaging in deep family outreach and listening,” adds Radley. “Only then can we understand what our students need and how we can support them.”

You can’t do it alone — and you don’t have to.

At the Winship, teachers’ jobs go beyond the walls of their classrooms. The mission is to support the whole scholar, the whole day. This holistic view of education comes with challenges. “It’s all hands on deck,” says Radley, smiling. “We have to leverage what we have, to do what we need to do.”

Sometimes this means science teachers lead reading groups, or ESL teachers bring cider presses to school. This powerful, all-hands approach isn’t easy. “We definitely received some pushback internally,” reflects Ford Walker. “When we felt it, we had to peel the onion back as a team to learn what the sources of concern were, then meet those particular needs. Supporting our team meant providing necessary tools and providing our team autonomy around curriculum decisions. It also meant allowing staff to pursue their passion as they planned learning experiences for our scholars. An example of this is when the science teacher asked if he could create a Makerspace for our students. I responded with a resounding, ‘absolutely!’”

“Part of what makes the Winship so special is that our teachers and staff go to great lengths to get to know our scholars as whole human beings: as scholars, athletes, musicians, and cultural beings who live their language and family lives here at our school. This sparks our teachers’ curiosity to design learning experiences that leverage our students’ interests and identities.” – Brian Radley

Ford Walker credits this space, along with the Outdoor Classroom learning space — and the hard work of her teaching team to create these learning environments — for deepening scholars’ learning experiences at the school.  Achievement, she stresses, is a group effort, and it requires courage, creativity, clarity, and commitment from all involved.

It’s also important to build connections with community partners outside of the school, something Ford Walker focused on in her five years leading the Winship, including bringing arts to the school through a partnership with Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society. “This partnership allowed the school community to offer music classes to all scholars. It allowed scholars to develop or feed their passions,” says Ford Walker. This and other community partnerships allow Winship scholars to feel connected and to thrive — key parts of meeting diverse needs and accelerating achievement.

“There’s still more to work on, and there’s still growth to happen,” says Ford Walker. “A school should never stop growing. There are always areas for improvement. School leaders must be creative in solving complex problems under tight constraints. To do this, you must leverage your entire team in order to move the school community forward and meet the needs of all scholars.”