Jairon Arias missed more than 40 days of school in the third grade, and when he did show up, he arrived one or two hours late. His classmate Cristian Posada was a recent immigrant from El Salvador and spoke limited English. Joel Ramos, the son of Salvadoran immigrants, also struggled with reading and writing because of his limited vocabulary.
All three were chosen at the beginning of the last school year as they entered the fourth grade to participate in a school system experiment to boost state test scores among Latino and African-American boys, the lowest achieving groups in the Boston public schools. Principals at 44 elementary, middle, and high schools chose 10 academically struggling boys to keep close tabs on through the school year.
The students in the so-called "10 Boys" clubs received extra tutoring, attended group lunches, and went on outings with their principals, with the goal of creating camaraderie and a support network that would help them score at the highest levels on the MCAS tests.
The program appears to have helped to bridge a persistent achievement gap between white and Asian students and their black and Latino peers, according to tests results released yesterday by the state Department of Education.
Nearly half of the 236 students whose scores the school system has analyzed so far advanced at least one level on the math or English MCAS tests in the first year of the program.
To pass the tests in the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, students must score in the top three categories: needs improvement, proficient, or advanced. Federal law, however, will require all students to achieve proficiency in math and English by 2014, or their schools could face sanctions.
Jairon, Cristian and Joel all moved up one level on the English MCAS, from "needs improvement" in third grade to "proficient" on the tests they took last spring as fourth graders, progress that their superintendent, principal, teacher, and mothers credit to belonging to the "10 Boys" club.
"One of the challenges we face is this culture of low performance," said Ingrid Carney, a deputy superintendent who charged the principals in the schools she oversees with establishing the clubs. "We're trying to break through this peer pressure of kids thinking it's not cool to be smart."
The "10 Boys" clubs will expand to the rest of Boston's 144 schools this year, Carney said, and use the strategies that participating principals identified as most effective.
Schools that have already started the clubs are adding a few more students; others plan to start separate "10 Girls" clubs. The initiative, which includes extending the school day in low-performing schools, hiring staff members to reach out to parents, and decreasing class size, is part of an overall district effort to close the achievement gap.
Scores on the spring test improved across all grade levels and tests, according to the results released yesterday, but persistent gaps remain between different groups of students.
More than half of Asian and white fourth graders scored "proficient" or "advanced" on the English exam, but only about a quarter of black and Latino students did. In math, more than half of white and Asian fourth graders scored "proficient" or "advanced," but fewer than a quarter of black and Latino students did.
"We have a lot more work to do to make sure every single student is proficient in math and literacy," Carol Johnson, superintendent of the Boston public schools, said during a state Department of Education press conference yesterday in Boston. "It's not enough to make progress across all groups. The challenge is to accelerate the performance of students who are below standard at a faster and higher rate."
The Patrick J. Kennedy Elementary School in East Boston, where Jairon, Cristian, and Joel were in fourth grade last year, outpaced all other Boston elementary schools in moving fourth graders to proficiency in math; 55 percent of the school's 23 fourth-graders made proficiency, up from 16 percent the previous year. The school, where the majority of students are Latino and more than a quarter do not speak English fluently, moved 60 percent of its fourth-graders to proficiency in English, up from 44 percent.
Although the club included only a fraction of the students, Johnson said the strategy "has really helped schools zero in on a group of students who may fall through the cracks if we don't intervene."
The club, she said, also catches troubled students early who might later drop out of school. Principals and teachers track the boys' attendance and call parents weekly. They monitor students' grades, homework, and test scores. And all students must sign a contract in which they set MCAS goals and pledge attendance, finish their homework, and stay positive about their abilities to succeed.
At first, some teachers were skeptical that targeting a small group would be any better than existing efforts to help every child.
"I was kind of leery about the concept," said Frances Stuart, who taught Jairon, Cristian, and Joel last year before retiring in June. "Why are we focusing on 10? "
Of Stuart's 23 fourth-graders last year, 17 performed below grade level in reading and math when they entered.
Students, too, did not know what to make of this new club.
"When she first picked us, I thought all of us were in trouble," said Jairon, 10.
But Stuart, who agonized about whom to select among her neediest students, soon saw a change in the boys' behavior, grades, and attitude toward school, even before they took the MCAS.
She warned Jairon's mother that if he kept skipping school, he would fail the fourth grade. She sent math flash cards home with Cristian and wrote notes to his mother so she could work with him every night at home when she returned from her Chelsea factory job. At her urging, Joel came to school two hours early for an hour and 20 minutes of tutoring three days a week for six months.
The boys, now in fifth grade, gathered this week for the fall's first meeting of the "10 Boys" club. Six new members from the third and fourth grades joined them for a pizza lunch with their principal, Marice Diakité, in a makeshift conference room.
Diakité drew a chart on the white board of the four levels on the MCAS. Students in grades 3 through 8, as well as Grade 10, take the MCAS every year.
"We're going to be working together this year very, very hard to see if all of you could achieve proficiency or better on the MCAS," Diakité said. "Do you know what proficiency means?"
The boys cried out: "Do your best." "You have to prove yourself." "That you're a professional."
The new boys wanted to know if the group would be meeting every day, and whether it would help get them into college.
They tossed around names for the group - "The Super Brains," "The Workers," "The Improvementors" - before settling on "The Fantastic 10."
Diakité asked everyone to sign a new contract.
"When you sign this contract, you can't quit," said David Hernandez, a fourth-grader who just joined the group. Hernandez had to repeat the third grade and did not want to flunk again.
"I feel happy because I'll get a better score on the MCAS," he said, "and I can pass the fourth grade."
Tracy Jan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Correction: Because of the state Department of Education's use of rounding in reporting its MCAS results, a chart in Friday's City & Region section showing high school passing rates misstated the 2007 rate in the math exam for Boston Collegiate Charter School. The rate was 100 percent passed.)