(Patrick D. Rosso/Boston.com/2012)
Justin Vernon, the principal of the Roger Clap Innovation School in Dorchester, will be stepping down from his position, he announced in a letter to parents last week.
Vernon was brought on in 2010-2011, as the school developed its Innovation Plan. Innovation schools, which are public, allow for greater flexibility in budgeting, curriculum, scheduling, and staffing. While innovation schools are overseen by the local school district, a governing board made up of staff, parents, and community members helps guide decisions.
The Clap, which is located on Harvest Street, was the first Innovation School in Boston. There are a number of Innovation Schools across the Commonwealth, with eight, including the Clap, now located in the city.
“The big thing for me, was the life and work balance,” explained Vernon, who will be leaving at the end of the school year. “I have a young family and I need to see my kids. I’ll be pursuing opportunities that will help me create that balance.”
Vernon, along with the school’s parents and staff, is credited with boosting student test scores and performance.
The school, which in 2010 was slated to be closed by Boston Public Schools, was on the lower end of school performance. When Vernon came on it was a Level 3 school, with Level 5 representing the lowest performing schools in the state. The school has since rebounded and is now a Level 1 school.
"Justin is a tremendously talented educator and we will miss him greatly. In 2010 we asked him to take on a challenge that no one in Boston had ever attempted,” said John McDonough, interim-superintendent of BPS. “He built partnerships with parents, teachers and the community and turned a school that had been slated for closure into the first Innovation school in the city.”
“Thanks to his leadership and an extraordinary team of talented teachers, today students at the Roger Clap Innovation School are demonstrating some of the best academic progress anywhere in Massachusetts,” McDonough added.
Vernon credited the school’s success to its Innovation Plan and the dedication of parents.
“We’ve worked very hard to have an academic culture here,” said Vernon. "I think we’ve done an excellent job carrying on the work that needs to be done; there’s a good foundation here.”
Although the school has made significant progress and its close to 170 students in grades K through fifth, continue to grow, Vernon said the small school still faces a number of challenges including a dilapidated school yard, shrinking budget, and a want to expand.
“There are facility concerns and in addition to that we’ve been working to improve our schoolyard,” said Vernon. “We’re also always interested in involving more parents and more people from the community.”
The school’s governing board, in partnership with BPS, will now begin the process of selecting a new principal.
“The Innovation Plan calls for the personnel subcommittee of the governing board to review candidates and make a recommendation. In a way we are very fortunate, because a lot of the times you are handed your principal,” explained Gene Gorman, a parent representative on the governing board.
Gorman said any new principal will need to meet several criteria, in addition to being able to build upon the Innovation Plan and work with the diverse population the school serves.
“It’s a tough, but really rewarding job,” said Gorman, who has two children at the school. “We’re looking for a principal who is going to be a collaborator not just with the faculty and the staff, but with the parents and the greater neighborhood.”
Gorman said that Vernon has left his mark on the school and will be missed.
“I think his tenure in a way was like a basketball coach brought on to turnaround a team,” Gorman said. “He took a school that was just OK academically and made it a high performing school in a short time and set us on the road to success.”
Although a lot has happened at the school during Vernon’s leadership, Vernon said he can easily name some his favorite moments, including visits by Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Governor Deval Patrick, as well as his students successfully completion of the school’s reading challenge and the subsequent celebration.
“There has been a lot of fun stuff and we have been able to do a lot of great things together,” said Vernon. “For me it’s really about the kids and spending as much time with them as I can. It was great to see them think critically, challenge each other, and ask great questions.”