A hard lesson: change can come too fast
Hired as a savior, the young, new principal upended everything at English High but this: the pattern of failure
They inspired her and pushed her when she felt like giving up. And when Salma Hussain delivered the valedictory speech at English High School in 2010, she singled out eight teachers who helped her rise to the top just four years after arriving in Boston from Bangladesh, speaking no English.
“My teachers were my second parents. They were the ones who always helped me, no matter what I needed,” Hussain said. “Ms. Pred-Sosa, Ms. Drew, Mr. McShane, Ms. Silas, Mr. Hogu, Ms. Rodriguez, Ms. Follenweider, Mr. Beyer. I will never forget what you did for me.”
Just two years later, seven of the eight teachers Hussain praised are gone, most of them casualties of a radical transformation under a little-tested, 30-something headmaster recruited by Boston school Superintendent Carol R. Johnson to turn around one of the most troubled high schools in the state.
An extraordinary three-quarters of English High’s teachers and administrators have quit or been let go during the past three years, school records show, as headmaster Sito Narcisse pushed through one controversial initiative after another — from school uniforms to single-sex classrooms to eliminating the grade “D,” forcing students to earn a “C” or fail. Teachers who did not go along with Narcisse’s approach were “not the right fit,” in his words, and he sent 38 of them packing, while dozens of others retired or resigned.
Now, Narcisse himself is leaving for a new job amid questions about the wisdom of letting someone so inexperienced carry out drastic changes. Standardized test scores rose slightly under Narcisse, but so did the dropout rate, the course failure rate, and the absentee rate — while the experience level and morale of his teachers plummeted.
State education officials are so concerned about the lack of improvement under Narcisse that they are withholding more than $900,000 in federal funds until the school comes up with a better plan to fix its problems. If that fails, one of the oldest public high schools in the United States could face state takeover as early as next year.
“The progress we are seeing there is not what I would hope for,” said Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education whose agency reported in January that teachers were confused and distrustful of Narcisse’s plans and fearful that if they complained they would be viewed as disloyal.
“I’d rather see the district pull this off . . . but at the end of the day, if this [turnaround] doesn’t happen at district level, we will look at receivership,” Chester added.
Narcisse, who is departing to become director of school performance in Montgomery County, Md., insists that he got English High moving in the right direction, pointing to a slight uptick in 10th grade MCAS scores and the success stories of students who, like Hussain, are going on to good colleges.
“I will not sit here and lie to you and say three years in, we got a perfect thing,” said Narcisse, 36, in an interview. “It was a sinking ship and the last headmaster worked hard to plug the holes. I can tell you now the ship isn’t sinking.”
In fact, Narcisse came to English when many teachers, students, and parents were still fuming that Johnson had removed his predecessor, Jose Duarte, who had mixed results. Teachers were showing signs of burnout from the extra work to implement Duarte’s changes, the state found, yet standardized test scores remained abysmal and only a little more than half of the class of 2009 graduated within four years.
Now, Johnson is so concerned about English High that she quickly named her assistant superintendent, Ligia Noriega-Murphy, as the new headmaster and said that she will report directly to Johnson rather than a deputy as Narcisse had done.
But Johnson said Narcisse, who came to Boston with only one year of experience as a principal, deserved credit for tackling one of the toughest jobs in education.
“School reform isn’t easy,” especially at high schools, said Johnson. “Not everyone is always going to be happy. I can’t even say everything we did at this particular school was done perfectly. But I do believe there was some progress made.”
But for many teachers who departed — only 22 faculty and administrators remain out of 86 from the pre-Narcisse era — progress came at great cost, both to their careers and to a school they loved.
“No one was ever expecting . . . the demonization of teachers,” said one teacher who was let go, requiring her to transfer to another Boston school. When teachers got letters from Narcisse telling them they would have to leave English, she said, “They were in their classrooms crying.”
English High School had fallen a long way before Narcisse brought his printed school turnaround plan to a job interview. In the 1980s, it was a magnet school that drew students from across the city, but, by 2009, English consistently ranked in the bottom 10 percent of the state on standardized tests and Duarte was fighting threats from the state to close the school.
Narcisse, by contrast, was a rising star in Pittsburgh, where former Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Mark Roosevelt was superintendent and a Narcisse admirer. In 2008, Roosevelt had tapped Narcisse for his first principal’s job: starting up and running a 150-student high school in the poorest neighborhood in the city.
In interviews, Narcisse talked persuasively about empowering disadvantaged students rather than pitying them, something that resonated for some at English where most students come from low income black and Hispanic families, often speaking languages other than English at home.
“What we want is people who are going to push with high expectations and get them to the next level,” said Narcisse, explaining his philosophy. “Here’s what I tell folks all the time: We’re not here to save the kids. We’re here to teach the kids to save themselves.”
Johnson was impressed.
“We’re trying to move beyond the status quo,” she explained, “We value experience, but also people who are innovative and creative and come up with different solutions.”
At 33, Narcisse became headmaster of one of Boston’s 11 state-designated underperforming schools, giving him far broader authority than a typical principal. He was freed from strict union rules in hiring and firing and had the power to experiment boldly. Though he was supposed to consult with teachers and parents, both groups complained that, in practice, Narcisse launched major initiatives without involving them.
During three years, Narcisse did more to reinvent English High School than anyone before him. He held mandatory administrative staff meetings at 6 a.m. and assigned ninth graders to one floor so that the youngest students could spend most school time together.
He started offering single-sex classes in the belief that minority boys, especially, do better when separated from the girls. Though many teachers complained that they received little training on how to teach all-boy and all-girl classes, Narcisse persevered, planning to expand single-sex teaching to the entire 9th and 10th grades this fall.
“The all-male classes are very rough,” said one teacher. “I’ve observed kids throwing gum at the ceiling, rapping in groups during class. It was not pretty.”
Some intitiatives fizzled almost immediately. The dress code — white, gray, or navy blue polo shirts or cardigans paired with khaki or dark pants — fell apart when students realized from reading their student handbook they could not be sent home for violating it. A rewards program that gave a trip to Six Flags amusement park to well-behaved and high-performing students ran out of money.
Other changes, such as eliminating the letter grade D, were aimed at improving academic performance, but caused immediate problems. By dropping the lowest passing grade, Narcisse explained, “Most teachers had to accept they had to teach the kid and the kid had to accept they had to learn to get a C.”
Butmany teachers decided to give the former D students failing grades, contributing to a big jump in Fs at English. The high school reported an increase in failing grades this year at all grade levels and in most subject areas, and half the students who attend school regularly got at least one F.
Narcisse said he tried new approaches because the old ones had failed, he said. “It’s not working traditionally so why not work a different way to try to get different results?” he said, adding that new programs take time to show results.
But one school worker suggested the changes were ill-fated from the start.
“We were the NBT school — the Next Big Thing school,” said the educator. “Whatever the buzz was, that’s where you found us — same-sex classes, uniforms, ninth grade academy, curriculum initiatives. But there was no input from anyone — no research, no training, no evaluating, and therefore no effective implementation.
“It was change without progress,” he said.
Narcisse acknowledged that he didn’t do enough training for some initiatives, especially single-sex education, but he was also hurt by teacher resistance to his ideas.
“We received pushback,” said Narcisse. “It became a big controversy.”
Lisa Pred-Sosa pushed Salma Hussain to think big, helping her not only to speak fluent English, but also to apply for internships and colleges the teenager didn’t think would accept her.
The longtime English as a Second Language teacher drove Hussain to visit college campuses and persuaded the girl’s mother that her daughter could flourish away from home.
“Her class was the only one with no fights,” said Hussain, now at Smith College on a four-year scholarship. “She had rules and we had to follow them. One boy didn’t want to do anything. She paired him with one of the adults, who would take him to lunch every day. He did homework and he passed the class.
“If that’s not inspiring, I don’t know what is,” she said.
But Pred-Sosa, an award-winning teacher who was also a union representative at the school, was one of the first to be let go. She received the dreaded letter from Narcisse that she had been “excessed,” meaning that she would have to transfer to another school. Pred-Sosa was so shocked that she posted the letter on her classroom door, but Narcisse ordered her to take it down because it was disturbing the students.
“When you come into a tough job and make decisions, people take things real personal,” explained Narcisse. “Let me say this: Lisa Pred-Sosa is not a bad person. But the reality was I didn’t think she was the right fit for what we were trying to get done. That was hard for her to accept. But she was not a bad person. Nor do I think it was her fault. “
Pred-Sosa was among many well-regarded teachers informed by Narcisse that they would have to leave. Of the eight teachers that Hussain singled out in her graduation speech, Narcisse let three go, three more quit, and a seventh retired. One teacher who was released, Richard Beyer, now teaches honors English at Boston Latin, arguably the city’s best school.
This year, Narcisse released another teacher who had been praised by graduation speakers -- three, in fact. “Mr. Toledano — he’s English High School’s best teacher,” said Edgar Hernandez, one of the speakers.
Narcisse told Toledano, the history program director, that he had to go after Toledano suggested laying off a first-year teacher when Narcisse asked for budget-cutting ideas. The teacher, Roderick Adams, had been recruited by Narcisse and the two carpooled together, though Narcisse said his connection to Adams had nothing to do with Toledano losing his job.
In all, 79 teachers and administrators left the school under Narcisse, generating enough bitter former faculty members to form a busy Facebook group, the English High Exiles.
“No one ever feels good that they have to do that job,” said Narcisse. “But the reality on the other end — it’s like the NBA, right? Doc Rivers has to put their best team out on the court. It’s about wins and losses.’’
He said he chose whom to let go by literally graphing their skills and their “will” to implement his vision for the school. He moved quickly, he said, because he did not have the luxury of time.
“These are tough, tough, tough schools,” he said. “We’re working 50,000 hours to push and the pressure is on. You’re trying to find people who have that high capacity and can problem-solve.”
However, Narcisse had another goal that threatened the mostly white teaching staff: he wanted more minority teachers, believing they would build stronger connections with a student body that was nearly 90 percent minority. Under Narcisse, the teachers and administrators went from two-thirds white to 60 percent black and Latino.
“If I’m not mistaken, we are the most balanced school in the city in terms of race,” he said.
Narcisse knows that some teachers believed he was pursuing reverse racism, but he thinks they’re focusing too much on skin color.
“Anybody I let go would have said I was racist because I was a black headmaster letting go white faculty,” Narcisse said. “It’s interesting how they always pay attention to how many white people I let go and don’t care about how many blacks or Latinos I let go.”
Narcisse has defenders, such as school parent coordinator Sandra McIntosh, who said the headmaster raised academic expectations and hired talented people.
“I don’t think Dr. Narcisse let anyone go who didn’t deserve to go. Most of the ones who were let go felt they were privileged. You understand that goes with all disgruntled employees?”
Shanique Green, this year’s senior class president, said Narcisse made the school feel more like a family and introduced elective courses that she enjoyed.
But she was also disappointed that so many good teachers were forced out.
“My freshman year I had awesome teachers. They were more demanding,” said Green. “Now it’s different; the teachers don’t care. . . . Many new teachers let you do what you want. Some just let students sleep.”
That’s what a state team found when it visited English for two days in January. The officials from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education saw students texting, talking, wandering, and showing up late in more than a quarter of the rooms they entered.
They also saw students napping or resting their heads on their desks, while teachers did little to get their attention.
Superintendent Johnson acknowledged that English has a long way to go, but said success stories at low-performing high schools are hard to come by.
“We’re deeply concerned that any one of our schools finds itself in a situation that might result in a state takeover,” she said, but English High is special.
“It is the oldest high school and had been ranked among the highest in the Commonwealth, if not the country. It’s critically important we do everything possible so that students who go there have the best chance of succeeding.”