How New Bedford boosted its graduation rate
Keys were focus on individual students, English-language learners
IN SEPTEMBER OF 2013, two months after her arrival as the district’s new school superintendent, Pia Durkin paid a visit to New Bedford High School one morning not long after the start of the school day. Durkin said there was a student heading out of the building just as she was walking in. She tried to stop him.
“He said, it won’t matter, because they don’t even know I’m leaving,” said Durkin. “No one even knows I’m here.”
“That student summed it up,” said Durkin, who took the helm of a school system in deep distress.
With abysmal achievement scores, a graduation rate hovering a little above 60 percent, and a feeling among students, captured by Durkin’s doorway encounter, that school leaders were indifferent to it all, New Bedford was being eyed as a potential target for a state takeover.
Eight years later, the district still faces considerable challenges, but it has notched a significant victory when it comes to getting students to make it to graduation day. New Bedford High School has seen a nearly 30-point increase in its graduation rate, from a four-year rate that bottomed out at 61 percent in 2010 to a rate of 90 percent in 2020 among students who started at the school as 9th graders.
“It’s really a story of persistence,” said Mitchell, who credits the steady leadership of Durkin and her successor, Thomas Anderson, now in his third year as superintendent, as well as school-level leaders and teachers.
“It’s a huge celebratory point for the city as a whole,” said Anderson.
School leaders say there was no single reform that drove the improvement. “It was absolutely multifaceted,” said Bernadette Coelho, who was named headmaster of the high school in 2015.
But she and others point to two big factors that they say played a big role: an increased focus on individual students in the sprawling 2,700-student high school and a dramatic improvement in the district’s programming for English language learners, who make up a growing share of its student population.
Coelho said the high school restructured its staffing system several years ago so that each of its four grades is assigned a team, including an assistant principal, guidance and adjustment counselors, and an attendance officer, that stays with them for all four years at the school. The goal is “to ensure that each student, from the time they walk through doors as 9th graders until the time they graduate, are really part of one team of support staff,” she said. “We realize that one size doesn’t fit all, so it’s meeting students where they are,” she said of the more individualized support that can come with getting to know students well.
New Bedford has also made huge strides in serving English learners, who make up 26 percent of the system’s 12,000 students and 29 percent of the high school student body. Their four-year graduation rate soared 56 points over just the last six years, from 29 percent in 2014 to 85 percent in 2020.
In some respects, it was hard to go anywhere but up. Durkin said when she arrived as superintendent in 2013 there were only two English language teachers in the entire district and no system in place for assessing the needs of EL students. By 2018, she said, the district had 80 English learner teachers.
Durkin said it was important not only to dramatically ramp up the size of the staff serving English learners, but also to make sure they had the right training to help students make real gains. The district did that in part by recruiting existing teachers in the system to become EL instructors. The message to teachers, she said, was, “We’re going to put you through a rigorous training program, and then help you get certification,” she said. “That helped not only get the right people who were already committed to helping New Bedford kids, but to get them the skills to really do so.”
Takeru Nagayoshi, an AP English teacher at the high school, said there has been a marked change in the district – and the in the attitude of staff — since his arrival at New Bedford High School seven years ago.
“We sort of lost our way and developed a reputation as a failed academic institution,” said Nagayoshi, who was the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year in 2020. “That perception led to reality. There was a great sense of urgency and accountability that we as teachers all felt to change that.”
The school’s AP program has seen strong gains, both in the number of students taking advanced classes and the share scoring high enough on the year-end AP tests to earn college credits. The number of students taking AP classes has increased from 280 in 2016 to 327 in 2020. Meanwhile, the share scoring a 3 or higher on the 5-point AP test scale has gone from 26 percent in 2016 to 64 percent last year.
Sue Lusi, the president of Mass Insight Education, a Boston nonprofit that works to bring more AP courses to Massachusetts high schools, especially those with underserved populations, said New Bedford has benefited from not having “a revolving door of a new superintendent every 18 months,” a pattern not uncommon in struggling urban districts. She also credited Anderson with sticking with many of the changes that were underway when he arrived. “So many superintendents come in and they throw the baby out with the bathwater just because the other person did it,” said Lusi, a former superintendent in the Providence, Rhode Island, schools.
For all of the progress it has made, New Bedford has a long way to go to have all students on a trajectory for success. New Bedford High remains in the lowest performing 5 percent of all high schools in the state. On the 2019 MCAS, just 34 percent of students in grades 3-8 were deemed to be meeting or exceeding expectations in English, and only 32 percent were at that level in math.
Absenteeism is also a problem. In the 2019-2020 school year, 30 percent of New Bedford High School students were deemed chronically absent, missing 10 percent or more of school days.
And despite the big gains in the graduation rate, the rate at which students go on to two- or four-year colleges remains low, with just 44 percent of the high school’s 2019 graduates enrolling in college or university. In nearby Fall River, by contrast, 55 percent of 2019 graduates of Durfee High School enrolled in college, while the figure was 74 percent for Lowell High school grads and 61 percent for Lawrence High School.
“I think the mayor has done an extraordinary job of drawing attention to the performance of the school department, of drawing the community into supporting efforts at improvement,” said Paul Reville, who was state education secretary at the time that a state takeover was on the radar. But he said things like the low college-going rate should set off alarm bells. “If all we pay attention to is the high school graduation rate but don’t look at what it means in terms of college or career preparation, then graduation is meaningless and it’s just a piece of paper,” said Reville, who is now a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.“The number is not where we like it to be,” said Coelho, the high school headmaster, about the college enrollment figure. She said the high school hopes to join the state’s early college program, which lets high school students take courses at nearby community colleges, an approach that has been shown to increase higher education enrollment and persistence. She said the school has also been working on what she called “external factors” that hinder college-going, including partnering with the state on efforts to have more New Bedford families complete the federal student aid form, or FAFSA, which is the gateway to financial aid for college.
“There’s still a lot of growth we need to make,” said Anderson, the district superintendent. “I look at getting the graduation rate up as something that opens the door to us getting the college-going rates up.”