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Braintree investing in schools

New facilities, more teachers, and now higher MCAS scores

Braintree dedicated new high school athletic fields, one of several recent upgrades, during halftime of its Oct. 21 game against Natick High. Braintree dedicated new high school athletic fields, one of several recent upgrades, during halftime of its Oct. 21 game against Natick High. (George Rizer for The Boston Globe)
By Jessica Bartlett
Globe Correspondent / November 10, 2011

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F rom the new athletic fields at the high school, to upgrades in practically all of the town’s schools, to rising MCAS scores in the last four years, the Braintree public schools are seeing a lot of change.

The progress was conspicuously on display last month at Braintree High School, where the athletic fields, their artificial turf still smelling new, were dedicated during a well-attended ceremony.

Just a few days later, Governor Deval Patrick visited East Middle School, which was named one of the state’s “Commendation Schools’’ for improved MCAS scores.

Such improvements inside and outside the classroom are occurring even in a tough budgetary climate, as Braintree implements an investment strategy that emphasizes spending on teachers and supplements local revenue with state funding for facilities.

People outside of Braintree are noticing, as the number of students has grown by about 500 over the last decade.

“The people that are moving in . . . are all saying they are moving here for the schools,’’ Superintendent Peter Kurzberg said.

The town’s attitude is shown in the schools’ operating budget, which has grown from approximately $38 million in fiscal 2008 to $49 million in fiscal 2012, though with the growing enrollment, per pupil spending remains relatively low compared with nearby communities.

The majority of the overall spending increase reflects pay increases and contractual obligations, but some of it results from spending on new teachers. In the past four years, Braintree has added seven teaching positions. And during the period of 2008 to 2011, there was a marked improvement in most grade levels in the percentage of students ranked as “proficient’’ or “advanced’’ in both math and English language arts on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests.

Grades that saw small drops in the percentage of advanced or proficient students still generally saw decreases in the percentage of students in the “needs improvement’’ or “warning’’ categories.

Other indicators have pointed to the schools’ success, including a decrease in the dropout rate from around 1 percent in the 2008-09 academic year to 0.3 percent in 2010-11.

Furthermore, Braintree High’s most recent graduating class had the highest percentage of students in the school’s history (93 percent) go on to further schooling.

At the same time, Braintree school buildings have undergone a flurry of fixes. Aided by reimbursements from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, every school in the district has received upgrades on facilities since 2005.

In addition, in each of the past four years, the town has issued a $700,000 bond for various school capital improvements.

“We’re trying to use the existing facilities that we have - investing in them and upgrading them so the life of the buildings are extended for a significant period of time,’’ said Kurzberg. Administrators want “the overall atmosphere of the school to be more conducive to student learning.’’

Some local officials see a strong correlation between Braintree’s capital spending on the schools and increased student performance.

“I think it’s been a priority for the mayor, the Town Council, and the School Committee,’’ Town Councilor Charles Ryan said. “I think when you have students learning in a better atmosphere, when you’re fixing the schools and repairing the schools, it would lead to better performance.’’

A former selectman, Ryan said the town has spent significantly more since the government’s reconfiguration to a town council structure in 2008. The changes result partially from the priorities of Mayor Joseph Sullivan, who sits on the School Committee, and partially from the state authority’s involvement.

Without the building authority as a partner, many of the recent projects wouldn’t be possible, Ryan said, pointing to the rejection of a debt exclusion override for operating funds several years ago.

“I think the residents of Braintree want to see us live within our budget. When we can do these projects working with the MSBA . . . it’s the preferred method,’’ Ryan said.

The link between capital spending and academic achievement is more tenuous in the view of Anna Bradfield, dean of the College of Education and Allied Studies at Bridgewater State University.

“I would be hesitant to relate a direct correlation between improvement in buildings and increase in tests scores,’’ Bradfield said. “With that said, if you have buildings that are falling down around children, it’s hard for them to concentrate on what they are learning.’’

The fact that the state authority has partnered so frequently with Braintree - in both the Green Repair Program for energy-efficient upgrades at several schools and a new roof at the high school this year - showed that the town’s needs were significant.

While not necessarily improving educational performance, she said, investment in infrastructure can demonstrate a commitment to education.

“Braintree is putting quite a bit of money into their whole educational system, their infrastructure, faculty, all of that . . . it can’t hurt that students have better facilities, but could you just have a better facility and expect students to do better? No. It’s about what goes inside that building, assuming you’ve got the equipment and materials that they need’’ to learn, she said.

The quality of teachers is more important than facilities, she said. And more teachers can also reduce class sizes, another prime factor in student progress.

Braintree’s chief of operations and staff, Peter Morin, feels that a combination of factors has led to the town’s recent success, all having to do with the schools being a top priority. “Under the prior form of government, there hadn’t been an aggressive investment in education,’’ he said.

“There is this morale boost that comes from seeing improvements in your workplace and investment in your educational environment,’’ he said. “It’s evidence of a common cause, or an investment in the mission of the schools. People care enough to put their money toward it. That’s conveyed.’’

But Morin also noted that schools can’t improve without an investment in teachers and a high-quality curriculum.

To the mayor, the focus on the infrastructure is merely an effort to match the schools’ existing excellence.

“The kids have always worked hard, and we’re now catching up with them. We recognize the academic performance and it’s our obligation to make sure the buildings in which the teachers are teaching and the kids are learning are of a quality that begins to match the work in the classroom,’’ Sullivan said.

Moving forward, the town hopes to continue to invest in the educational realm. Officials are in discussion with the state building authority to add classrooms, and the mayor plans to continue the annual appropriation for infrastructure.

“We will continue to work closely with the mayor and town officials and the School Committee to hopefully be able to maintain what we have, but also make some advances forward,’’ Kurzberg said.

Jessica Bartlett can be reached at jessica.may.bartlett@gmail.com.