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Headmaster's possible removal elicits protests

Jose Duarte, English High's headmaster Jose Duarte, English High's headmaster
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / June 13, 2009
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Jose Duarte, the hard-charging headmaster of English High School in Boston, has repeated the phrase in his mind over and over again as he has tried to stave off the closing of one of America's oldest public high schools: "I cannot fail."

But School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson has indicated that English High's turnaround could hinge on his removal, prompting a revolt among many staff members, parents, and students who believe in Duarte's leadership.

They have launched a petition drive and letter-writing campaign to persuade Johnson to change her mind. They also pleaded their case this month before the School Committee and with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is overseeing the school's improvement effort.

"We are on a roll. Why break it if it's working?" said Anne Minichino, a school nurse and petition signer, who was among a group that appeared at the June 3 School Committee meeting. "The fact they want to pull him out doesn't make any sense."

Both Johnson and Duarte declined interview requests this week, noting privacy rights surrounding personnel issues.

"The superintendent is in ongoing conversations with the school community about this matter and would prefer not to comment until she has made a decision about the school's leadership moving forward," Christopher Horan, the school district's spokesman, said in a statement.

Duarte has supporters among the faculty, but also many critics. Several teachers interviewed for this report declined to comment on the record.

Once one of Boston's most prestigious schools, English High was in such dire shape by 2007 that the state identified it as one of the worst schools in Massachusetts and threatened to close it unless scores improved.

Duarte, headmaster since 2000, was initially given a year to improve the school, and the Globe chronicled the yearlong effort. Johnson then gave Duarte another year.

Strong leadership is critical at English High, which is part of a state experiment that, if successful, could offer a cure for ailing schools. The premise of the Commonwealth Pilot Schools program is radical: Instead of the state taking over a chronically underperforming school, it converts them into district-run charter schools, where principals have greater freedom to develop programs and staff with fewer restrictions from teacher unions and school district regulations.

At English High, Duarte has revamped the school's administrative team and required teachers to reapply for their positions during the conversion; he hired back about two-thirds of them. He also extended the amount of time students spend in class by four hours a week and rolled out a new English curriculum, while enrollment was reduced by a quarter to ease crowding.

A report by the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts, which is monitoring the five schools in the state program, found after the first year that 72 percent of staff members believed English High was moving in the right direction, but they expressed concerns about sustaining energy for improvement. Signs of burnout were appearing at year's end, with teachers working an average of 11.2 hours more a week, the report found.

It is unclear whether the experiment will pay off. Only one year of state MCAS data is available since the conversion began, and the results were mixed. While 10th grade results improved slightly in English, with 33 percent scoring in the top two categories, math scores dropped 5 percentage points, with 32 percent scoring in the top two categories.

Supporters say that Duarte needs more time to execute the improvement plan and that the circumstances around his impending removal remain a mystery, frustrating them. They said Johnson told Duarte of the change more than a month ago.

"We are fighting this until she gives us an answer," said Sandra McIntosh, the school's parent coordinator and a member of the school's governing board, which was established under the state program to help guide school improvement. "The state is just as baffled."

The state learned of the leadership change only in the last week, said JC Considine, a state education department spokesman. The department, he said, has asked to meet with Boston officials next week to gain a better understanding for new leadership and any other changes. While the state leaves the appointment of new leaders to a school's governing board and the superintendent, who has final say, the state maintains oversight of the program, including consultations on major shakeups.

Kelly Smith, a Back Bay mother, said she was initially apprehensive about sending her daughter, Arielle Ighile, who is blind, to the school four years ago, but Duarte's willingness to accommodate requests for materials in Braille and other changes put her at ease. The school runs a program for students who are blind, and her daughter is scheduled to graduate Monday.

"He's very outspoken," she said. "He takes a stand for what's needed."

Danielle Salerno, 15, a tenth-grader from Roslindale, said Duarte always pushes students to do what they need to do to be successful in school. She said he helped the cheerleading squad find money to buy new uniforms and gives out trophies at awards ceremonies to honor outstanding student achievement.

"He's the kind of principal I always wanted," Salerno said. "He's always stressing how we need to go to college and do well in life."