Turnaround challenge

Can a dynamic young principal drive change at one of the state’s lowest-performing high schools?

High School of Commerce from Amherst Wire on Vimeo.

Singing. Laughing. Dancing on a balcony that nobody can ever remember being used in the auditorium. It’s August 30, the first day of school at Springfield’s High School of Commerce, and the opening assembly features a live band from Berklee College of Music in Boston. It’s the beginning of the “new” Commerce High, and the man in charge concludes with a rally chant, but not before reminding his students to be on time for school each day and wear their uniform.  

The leader behind the new Commerce is 28-year-old Washington, DC, native Charles Grandson IV. He’s young, black, and perhaps exactly what’s needed to turn around one of the state’s lowest-performing high schools. Before Commerce, Grandson worked as the director of the ninth grade academy at Boston’s English High School, another of Massachusetts’ underperforming high schools working towards academic turnaround.

High School of Commerce principal Charles Grandson IV
Just having Grandson stick with the job for a while would be a step in the right direction for Commerce, which might as well install a revolving door in the principal’s office: Grandson is the school’s eighth principal since 1999.

“We’re looking at some innovative things to do to try and reengage students,” Grandson says.  “Whatever we can do that is outside the box.”

Commerce is one of four high schools in Massachusetts categorized as a Level 4 underperforming school. Schools receive that designation after poor performance on Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams over a three-year span without signs of substantial improvement. If the school fails to move out of Level 4 status within three years, it will move to Level 5 designation and the state will take over.

Just what is Grandson up against? On last year’s MCAS exam, only 16 percent of Commerce students tested proficient in science and technology, 28 percent were proficient in math, and 48 percent in English language arts. Only about a third of Commerce seniors graduated last year, and about 20 percent of the student body was absent on any given day.  Eighty percent of Commerce students come from low-income families, more than a third speak English as a second language.

Pam Dugas, Commerce’s mental health counselor, says Grandson walks the halls daily and frequently addresses students on the PA system, with an inspirational quote one day and recommended reading the next. More than anything, Grandson stresses the importance of turnaround at all levels, especially to the teachers, faculty, and staff, who are essential to breaking the cycle of underperformance.

“He sends memos periodically,” said Dugas. The messages, she says, are all designed to cultivate a culture of change:  “You all need to be in those hallways at the sound of the bell.  Everyone is responsible for building this community.”

Grandson emphasizes professional development to help teachers address complex social and emotional issues students face. This is especially important at a school like Commerce, where just one mental health counselor must meet the psychological needs of the roughly 1,200-student population.

When Dugas started working at Commerce five years ago, there were seven guidance counselors. Today there are four. On two days in early November alone, Dugas met with 48 different students, for issues as wide-ranging as grief counseling, suicide prevention, bullying, couples conflict, and food and shelter needs related to October’s nor’easter that left some Commerce students without power for more than 10 days. Dugas says Commerce would benefit immensely by having even one more mental health counselor; in an ideal world, she says, there would be one per grade level.

“I’ll sometimes have a kid in [my office] in total crisis, a kid waiting in the nurse’s station, a kid waiting in the in-house suspension room, a kid waiting with an administrator,” Dugas says. “We don’t do justice to these kids’ problems.”

Many of the students are considered to be high-risk for dropping out, while nearly half of the student body is considered to be in 9th grade because so many students have been held back once, twice, or, in some cases, three times. All of these factors must be addressed before a successful education plan can be implemented, says Grandson.  

“It’s getting to the personal care, trying to find out what additional needs students have [and] what obstacles we have to get out of the way before we can get to the academics,” he says.  

The new Commerce takes innovative approaches to increase attendance and create a positive student culture. Teachers make regular phone calls to parents or guardians, while guidance counselors have begun home visits. Grandson has initiated four academies, or smaller learning communities, within the school, in which teachers spend more one-on-one time with students. Teachers have also been instructed to correct students in a positive way instead of jumping directly to consequences.

But to truly create and sustain the new Commerce, it’s clear that student support also has to come from sources outside of the school day. One teacher, who asked not to be named, says only 9 of their 80 students were represented by a parent or guardian at an October open house. Teachers feel there are few role models in the community who display academic success, while many students do not have an example of someone who went on to post-secondary education. According to Springfield Superintendent Alan Ingram’s annual report, in the 2010-11 school year, only 80 Commerce seniors took the SATs, a standardized test required for admission to most colleges.

Grandson, a doctoral candidate, can be that education-focused role model that some of these students have never had. “A lot of kids last year had no idea who the principal was,” says Marvin Dias, a guidance counselor at Commerce. This year, he says, things are different. “It’s not just that they know who he is,” Dias says of Grandson. “But for this community, a lot of these students need to see somebody like themselves.”

Less than six months into Grandson’s two-year contract, it is too early to know whether his turnaround leadership can create the long-term change that Commerce so desperately needs. Grandson stresses community involvement and a commitment to positive thinking instead of viewing the school’s problems as intractable. It means supporting the idea of a new Commerce, believing that change is possible, and not reverting back to old thinking when new initiatives encounter what he calls “hiccups.”

Some of his challenges are more than a hiccup. In December, Commerce teacher Willie Vega was charged with punching a female vice principal in the face after she gave him a poor performance evaluation. At his Dec. 20 arraignment Vega denied charges of assault and battery, assault and battery on a public employee, and kidnapping—the latter the result of Vega allegedly blocking the door when the vice principal tried to flee from the office. While Vega’s case is now in the courts, he has been terminated from the Springfield schools.

Under state order, half of Commerce’s teaching staff was to be replaced between 2010 and 2011. At a school committee meeting last May, several committee members expressed concern about the school’s stability with teachers and principals coming and going, but Grandson believes success at Commerce begins and ends with teacher leadership.

Meet the Author
“If teachers know better and can do better, student’s will know better and will do better,” said Grandson. “What I’ve told students is, if they want this place to change, we have to look in the mirror and say, ‘How are we going to make this change ourselves?’”

Rachel Roberts is a senior majoring in journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.