Brockton high school would seem to have every reason to be an academic also-ran, but principal Susan Szachowicz has found a way to make the urban school one of the nation's best turnaround stories.
TO JUDGE BY its demographics, Brockton High School looks like lots of urban high schools that have failure written all over them. The sprawling complex is the largest public school in Massachusetts, with more than 4,100 students navigating its maze of hallways. Nearly 70 percent of them, more than twice the statewide average, come from low-income homes, and two-thirds are black or Hispanic, the two groups that sit at the lower end of the achievement gap. One-third of the school’s students don’t speak English as their first language, also more than double the statewide average.
All too often those indicators point to dismal student achievement levels, and that was certainly true at Brockton High School in the late 1990s. Nearly half its students were failing the English portion of the state’s high-stakes MCAS exam and 75 percent were failing math. That’s when Sue Szachowicz and a handful of her colleagues, alarmed by the prospect of thousands of Brockton students being denied diplomas when the MCAS exam’s high-stakes graduation requirement took effect in 2003, began a highly focused effort to turn things around. The results have been extraordinary, with the school now tracking the statewide average for MCAS in English, and recording among the largest achievement gains of any school in Massachusetts.
Szachowicz was head of the history department in the late 1990s when she served on a committee that restructured the school day into fewer periods of longer length. But it soon became clear that the exercise was a bit like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. “If you have 66 minutes of not a good thing instead of 45, you’re no further ahead than you were before,” she says. In the end, she and her colleagues concluded, it wasn’t the structure of the day but the quality and rigor of classroom instruction that was at the heart of why a school thrived—or failed. They set their sights on an ambitious literacy initiative, recognizing that reading, writing, and reasoning skills were the underpinnings of success not only in English class, but in every discipline across the curriculum.
Just 6 percent of Brockton 10th-graders failed the English portion of the MCAS test last year, and 71 percent scored in the top two categories, advanced and proficient, nearly matching the statewide rate of 78 percent. Even more impressive, when measured in terms of growth in English scores from 8th grade, the year before entering Brockton High, and 10th grade, Brockton students showed greater gains in 2009 than 98 percent of all Massachusetts schools. Meanwhile, the achievement gap in English separating black and Hispanic students in Brockton from white students statewide has been cut in half.
Brockton High was included in a recent report directed by Harvard researcher Ron Ferguson, which spotlighted 15 “exemplary” US high schools that were raising achievement levels and narrowing achievement gaps through improved instruction. The report helped land the school on the front page of the New York Times in September, with PBS and CNN crews soon beating a path to the school’s doors.
Some of the interest in Brockton’s impressive gains comes because the school seems to stand apart from even the small universe of urban schools that have broken through the demographic expectations and shown high achievement among low-income minority students. Its mammoth size undercuts arguments that only small schools can give these students the attention necessary to succeed. Szachowicz and her colleagues have had to work within a traditional six-hour school day that ends at 2 o’clock, and a strong union contract gives her none of the unilateral control over staffing that leaders of many high-achieving charter schools say is key to their success.
What Szachowicz has mastered as well as any leader of a large urban high school is the art of the possible. She’d love reforms like a longer school day or more autonomy in personnel decisions, but says the approach at Brockton High has been to seize opportunities to make big change that are possible within the structure you are handed—and go at that with all you have.
“Well-behaved women rarely make history,” reads a bumper sticker on the wall above Szachowicz’s desk. The 57-year-old Brockton native is hardly ill-mannered. But she has little tolerance for excuse-making—among staff or students—and unyielding expectations for what students at her alma mater, regardless of their background, can achieve.
The restructuring committee that first devised the literacy project a decade ago is still going strong, meeting once a month on Saturday mornings, an approach that puts teachers at the center of reform efforts. The committee is now turning its attention to math, where Brockton has made gains but lags well behind state averages. When the restructuring group started, Szachowicz says she had to beg to get 20 teachers to join. Now she has to turn away faculty who want to serve on the 32-member panel, whose members she calls “the think tank power brokers of the school.”
Ferguson, the Harvard researcher, says the initiative has been so well baked into the culture at Brockton High, and is so fully embraced by the school’s leadership team, that it wouldn’t lose its force at this point even if Szachowicz left. That said, her continued presence surely doesn’t hurt. “She’s a powerhouse,” says Ferguson. “She’s determined, she’s smart, and she’s totally dedicated to that school and that community.”
COMMONWEALTH: With all the attention Brockton has received for its impressive achievement gains, the $64,000 question, of course, is, how did you do it?
SUE SZACHOWICZ: That is the first question everyone asks and the first answer I always give is: hard work, hard work, hard work. On the part of everybody—the teachers, the administrators, the students. It really has been a concerted effort. But that’s sort of the simple version. The heart and soul of what has happened at Brockton High School has been the literacy initiative that you’ve heard about. It’s about an intense, tenacious focus on the literacy objectives we have here, which are reading, writing, speaking, and reasoning. We don’t veer from that focus and that is in every discipline, every day, every subject.
CW: Just to back up a little bit, start the story back in the late 1990s.
SZACHOWICZ: When everybody was failing.
CW: Right. Can you describe what set in motion what has really been a decade-long effort.
SZACHOWICZ: I’m glad you said it’s been a decade long. The attention has come recently, and we kind of smile among ourselves because we’re being talked about as a turnaround school. This was no fast pirouette. This was a slow progression of change. The group that led this change was a group of teachers and administrators that were on our restructuring committee. And it started after the [MCAS] scores came out in 1998 and we had a 44 percent failure rate in English and a 75 percent failure rate in math. And then the scores didn’t get better. In fact, they actually got worse in math.
CW: You’ve referred to what the school was facing as “massive failure.”
SZACHOWICZ: It was. What else to do you call it when we were looking at 75 percent of the kids not getting a diploma? I’m a graduate of this school, so it really hurt. It would have been one thing if 75 percent of the kids in the entire state were failing, and then you’d say this was a horrible test. But guess what? That wasn’t the case.
CW: You were bringing up the rear.
SZACHOWICZ: We sure were, and we really needed to look in the mirror. There was nothing else you could do.
CW: So your focus initially was on driving up the MCAS scores and passing rate?
SZACHOWICZ: We did try to attack the test first. And I’ll tell you a funny story. We didn’t know what to do. I was a history teacher and my buddy that co-chaired the committee with me was an English teacher. We get this pile of numbers back and we’re looking at them. We saw that, for two years in a row, there were Shakespearian sonnets on the MCAS. So guess what we did first? We did this big work on Shakespearian sonnets. Guess what wasn’t on the test the next year? We realized the hard way that it wasn’t going to work to try to outguess the test. And was that really what we wanted anyway? So we broadened the discussion to, what are the skills that kids needed for the test? And what do our kids need to know and be able to do to be successful graduates?
CW: And so it broadened fast from the idea of learning Shakespearian sonnets.
SZACHOWICZ: To reading, writing, speaking, and reasoning —and there isn’t even a speaking component on the MCAS. We happened to feel like we needed that in the school because we couldn’t stand how they spoke. When you look at our literacy skills, they are those skills that adults use and need in the world all the time.
CW: So you came to the broad conclusion that literacy skills were what you needed to try to tackle. But how did you put this into place?
SZACHOWICZ: The angle that we took was people are going to support literacy but you need to define it for them, and then teach the teachers how to teach it to the kids. The real success story here is not just about students learning, it’s about adult learning. It’s about us then teaching ourselves—teaching the teachers, who then taught the students—because we, the restructuring committee, did all the training. So what does literacy and reading mean? It means that you know how to do pre-reading and use vocabulary and read for content and generate a response to what you’ve read. What does writing literacy mean? It means that you can also generate a response to what you’ve read, viewed, or heard. You can write an open response. You can debate an issue. You can compare and contrast. In speaking, it means you speak in complete sentences. We drafted these skills. Every one of them has a set of definitions. We wanted every teacher that looked at them to say, “Yes, a kid ought to be able to do that in my class.”
So, starting in the 2000-2001 school year, we tackled writing first. We felt out of all of them, that was the key to a kid’s success. Test-wise, writing was over 50 percent of the MCAS test. But, as I said, we had learned our lesson—it wasn’t just about test prep because we failed at that one. But writing is thinking, so if we could get our students writing differently, they were going to be thinking well and they were going to be reading more intensely. So we trained every teacher in the school on a format of writing instruction.
CW: And then the results of the MCAS came in.
SZACHOWICZ: I was the associate principal by then. My buddy, Paul Laurino, and I had been co-chairing the restructuring committee, and we felt it important to put a very confident front forward. “This will work. This will work,” we’d tell all the teachers. People weren’t buying it. They were following the initiative because we were pushing it. Behind the scenes we would say to each other, “Oh my God, if we don’t see some improvement, we are just dead in the water.” But we thought we were onto something good. We had gone hard at writing for a whole year, no exceptions. We had fought a lot of battles. Then I got a call from the [state education] commissioner’s office. I immediately thought that someone had cheated or I had miscounted the test booklets or some God-awful thing that happens in MCAS administration.
CW: A scandal was coming.
SZACHOWICZ: Yes, a scandal is coming. When my secretary said it’s the commissioner, I assumed she meant the commissioner’s office, having not been called usually by the commissioner himself. So I picked up the phone, and he said, “Szachowicz, Commissioner [David] Driscoll here.” At which point my heart sank like you wouldn’t believe. I had a knot in my stomach that was beyond measurement. Front page of the Globe. A scandal, whatever it is. And he said, “What did you do down there anyway? You are the most improved school in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.” I don’t think I could speak for five seconds – which is a miracle. And he said, “I’m coming to Brockton High to tell everybody.”
We had this big assembly in the auditorium. It was a very powerful moment because we had never been recognized for anything academically. He said, “You are a school of champions in your city of champions.” And then he looked at the faculty and he said, “and that is because you taught them better than any other faculty in this Commonwealth. Thank you very much.” And that’s when we had buy-in. We had buy-in when we had results. I always say, whenever I’m working with other schools or principals, you cannot wait for everybody to buy-in. Because that day isn’t going to happen. There are always going to be people who are going to hold back and say, “You need to prove it to me.”
CW: So, initially, you didn’t have really widespread support for the initiative?
SZACHOWICZ: No, we did not. We had people cooperating. We had some people who went really above and beyond, but I think most people had been through an awful lot of ed reforms.
CW: There’s always a new thing coming around that corner.
SZACHOWICZ: There was always a new thing, and they thought, we’ll wait this out, too. But this time something worked. And you saw immediate results. In that first year we cut our failure rate in half, and then the following year, in half again. So in English we went in two years from a 44 percent failure rate to 13. And in math, from a 75 percent failure rate to 36.
CW: Talk a little bit about this idea that with the literacy program you decided this has to be something that is done across the board, in every discipline, phys ed, art, everything.
SZACHOWICZ: I felt strongly that if you start exempting people it diminishes the value of what the exercise is. I think that’s been a key to the success. Everybody can do this. In phys ed, it wasn’t like they’re reading Shakespeare in the gym. But there are great non-fiction pieces on wellness, fitness, cardio issues.
CW: You are also unapologetic about the idea that, across the board with almost 300 teachers, they are doing the identical thing using the literacy rubrics that have been developed. Some people would say, what a mind-numbing way to approach things.
SZACHOWICZ: Yes. I’ve heard that. When people say, “That’s so formulaic,” my answer to that is, you’re right. We say, it’s a formula for success. How does anyone really learn something? Any musician or coach knows this: practice, practice, practice. And you can’t complicate the matter by saying, depending on what classroom you’re in the standards are different.
CW: Do you subscribe to this idea that we hear so often today that effective teachers are really the whole ball of wax.
SZACHOWICZ: I do.
CW: Can you talk a little bit about how you evaluate teachers? Because that’s also something that’s getting a lot of attention now with talk about remaking evaluation systems—across the state, across the country. It’s a big part of the Race to the Top initiative.
SZACHOWICZ: The evaluation instrument is contractual. And it’s horrible. It’s just check boxes. It’s broken. However, we’re pretty good here about saying, what can we control and what can’t we control, and what do we have that we can use differently? Well, beside the check boxes it says, “comments.” So we had an opportunity. I called Research for Better Teaching [an Acton-based consulting organization run by noted education leader Jon Saphier, which specializes in teacher development and teacher evaluation] and said we need some help, but you can’t change our instrument. They helped us use it much better and that has changed all of the evaluations. We train every new administrator in how to do this and it’s now a pretty powerful evaluation tool.
CW: Another thing that you do that’s very concrete is, because you have these common assessments and common rubrics, you look at how students are faring under different teachers and take a really hard look at disparities in the progress of students.
SZACHOWICZ: And we’ve gotten much better at looking at it. At first we had teachers submit student work to department heads mostly because we wanted to make sure it was being done. It was more about monitoring the process, but when we looked at it, we learned so much. We were sort of stumbling onto things. We would go in that conference room [motioning to a room adjoining her office] and we had the work spread out, and what became clear to us was the simple data question we now always ask: What do you notice? We were so unsophisticated. But it was the best question we could have asked because when we laid out the work on the table, we noticed that the rigor and consistency and how it was being graded was all over the place, even though we had a rubric. There was great disparity between what the expectations were from one classroom to another.
And we’re looking at work from one class and we said, “Look at the results Ms. Nelson is getting. Geez. How come her kids are getting this and this and others are not?” We started pairing teachers up, so that if you’re getting really high level writing in your class and I’m teaching the same group of kids and I’m not, we put the two teachers together—not to beat anybody up, but to say, what do you notice about the work produced here?
CW: There’s a lot of concern expressed these days that it’s threatening to teachers or it’s been a sticking point for teachers unions. Do you feel that we need to be looking at the relative performance of students under different instructors?
SZACHOWICZ: It’s part of moving the improvement agenda forward.
CW: How have you gotten that to be seen as something that can really improve things here, as opposed to something that’s sort of ominous or threatening to teachers?
SZACHOWICZ: It is not ominous. I think if you ask people, they wouldn’t find it that way at all. It’s a dialogue. What’s not happening here, and of course it’s sort of the elephant in the room, is there’s no pay for performance, so this is about school improvement and kids being held to the same standard.
CW: And with the teachers contract governing how evaluations are done, student performance is not a formal part of how teachers are evaluated.
SZACHOWICZ: That’s absolutely correct.
CW: Do you think it should be?
SZACHOWICZ: I don’t know yet. I think we’ve been onto some improvement strategies here. How that plays out with evaluation tools, I don’t know. I don’t know where all of that debate is going to go. We sort of have always worked within the system here, and there may be things that I don’t like—and there are plenty—but I feel like I can either choose to work within the system and make it successful or you look for a different route altogether.
CW: In a lot of ways isn’t that the Brockton High story—that you’ve managed to achieve what you all have accomplished—
SZACHOWICZ: Within the box.
CW: Yes, exactly. You’re a large school, the largest in the state. You don’t have a longer school day. You don’t have the sort of hiring autonomy that, say, a charter school has.
SZACHOWICZ: Right. Yes.
CW: You made a decision to not do what some schools have done whose students are struggling to gain proficiency in basic skills, which is “double block”—devote twice as much time to English and math, which often comes at the expense of art or music or things like that.
SZACHOWICZ: No. We don’t do that. We never went that route of taking that away because my belief is that’s the hook. Our kids would follow the band director off a cliff, or the football coach, or the choral director. There are kids who will bury themselves in fine arts. So we went the route of embedding literacy into those areas they love. In chorus, they were doing a piece for the Handel and Haydn Society. I found a reading about the times that this piece was about that they were singing. It was about the French Revolution period. The people were miserable and they were all angry. [The chorus instructor] had them read it and do a writing piece. Then she looked at me and she said, “And then they sang it differently.”
CW: Even though there is so much talk in education about these big kind of reforms that we need to have, some of which you’re a believer in, is the Brockton High lesson that there is a lot that can be done even without those sorts of big transformations?
SZACHOWICZ: Yes, there is a lot. I am a fan of most of those big transformations. I find it absurd that I as a principal can’t call a teacher’s meeting without having a grievance. But I’m not going to use that as an excuse and do nothing and say, poor me, poor me, and guess what, kids aren’t graduating. I just think far too often that’s used as an excuse. The literacy initiative costs nothing. It was about changing instruction in a building and changing the focus in a building.
cw: So it’s really about the mission and the culture of the school.
szachowicz: Right. Raising expectations costs nothing. It costs hard work. It makes us roll up our sleeves and it’s about doing things differently. That doesn’t mean that I’m not going to keep fighting for a longer day and a longer year, because I hate that kids walk out at two o’clock.
cw: Did you think 10 years ago that you’d be sitting here having someone come to talk to you about the really noteworthy progress at Brockton High?
szachowicz: Not in a million years. I could not have imagined it. Nor were we even aiming for that. We were really just focused on kids graduating, which sounds like such a low standard. But we were in such trouble that they weren’t going to get their diploma.
CW: With Brockton’s MCAS scores, you certainly aren’t leading the state; you are more or less now tracking the statewide averages. What makes it so impressive is you’re doing that with more than twice as many low-income kids.
SZACHOWICZ: Yes, and English language learners are increasing here hugely.
CW: Boxing has a big history in Brockton, so maybe the best way to describe it is to say you’re punching above your weight class.
SZACHOWICZ: Oh, I like that. We get kids here from everywhere. In fact, it’s not uncommon for us to get kids who haven’t been to school for some time. Our largest percentage of students is from Cape Verde, where you don’t have to go to school after the sixth grade. So it’s not uncommon for us to get a student who’s 18, 19, or even 20 years old, who has not been to school for six or eight years. We welcome them to Brockton High—and get them invested in literacy right away, because they have to pass that test, too, like anybody else.
CW: How do you view MCAS? Because it seems like it was the introduction of it and the high-stakes graduation requirement that lit a fire here, when push was going to come to shove. Is that the case?
SZACHOWICZ: Yes. Totally. I am totally in favor of the high-stakes test. Totally. And I get so angry when the suburban principals say, “Oh, this is so bad for the poor urban children.” No, it isn’t. People had very low expectations of our kids. The high standards aim to get kids to a place that is what all middle class parents want and expect of their children.
CW: Your scores are not nearly as good in math. But you’re now working on an initiative around that?
SZACHOWICZ: Yes, because we made great inroads at first and then we plateaued. And we don’t like plateaus here. We’ve stayed at this 15 percent failure and about 60 to 65 percent proficiency [in math] and we’ve soared in ELA [English language arts], which doesn’t make sense, because most of our kids are bilingual and they should be doing better in math and struggling in English. Some of it is instruction and we’re working on that. I think the problem is also the curriculum. Our kids are held back because they’re not getting algebra in Brockton until the 9th grade. I think it should be earlier.
CW: All these impressive gains in the numbers in a way don’t really mean anything if they don’t represent something about the trajectory that kids are on when they leave here. What do you know about that? How they are doing? What have you been able to measure?
SZACHOWICZ: A greater percentage of our kids are going to college now. Of the class of 2010, 48 percent went off to four-year schools and 89 percent overall were planning some form of post-secondary education.
CW: And how are they doing there?
SZACHOWICZ: That’s what we can’t get our hands around yet, and we need to. It’s very hard for us to track even our own students. Where do they go? I really do want to track them in college and see what happens.
CW: There’s nothing simple about this—it’s involved so much hard work and dedication. On the other hand, do you feel like the ability to really have an impact in urban schools is right there in front of us?
SZACHOWICZ: I think it is. Are we ever going to match the scores of the highest-flying district in Massachusetts? Unlikely. But it doesn’t mean we won’t aim for that.CW: Looking around your office, I notice that you have that very famous Margaret Mead quote about how to make change in the world not just in one spot but in two places.
SZACHOWICZ: Yes, I do—because I really do believe that: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I really believe it.