A not infrequent visitor to the Orchard Gardens school, Gov. Deval Patrick had cause for celebration when he visited classrooms Wednesday morning to announce student tests scores at the K-8 school had soared.
“We’re going to be voting for one or more of these young people before too long,” Patrick remarked while greeting a group of third graders who met him at the door.
Orchard Gardens had been a poster child of the distressed urban school when it was identified in 2010 as one of 34 schools around the state deemed Level 4 “turnaround” schools. The results of last spring’s Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test placed Orchard Gardens among the best schools in the state.
On Wednesday, Patrick and Education Secretary Matt Malone sat in the back of an eighth grade classroom as the teacher led the class through a mathematical word problem.
“I was on the edge of my seat, worrying that you were going to call on me,” Patrick said before departing for a visit to a different classroom.
Patrick has lauded praise on the school even before efforts to improve it had been validated by casting off its “underperforming” ranking Wednesday, a feat that has been achieved by 14 of the 34 schools deemed most in need of help.
"In less than a year, Orchard Gardens went from one of the worst schools in the district to one of the best in the state," Patrick said on the stage of the Democratic National Convention last September in Charlotte, N.C. "The whole school community is engaged and proud."
In February 2012, Patrick brought a first grade class from Orchard Gardens to the White House, where they performed “I have a Dream” for President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, and in January 2013, Patrick used the school as a setting to call for major increases in education funding.
There are four schools, located in Boston, Holyoke and New Bedford, that have not shown sufficient improvement over the past three years and could be taken under state receivership, and Patrick said the solution for lifting up a particular school depends on its circumstances.
“Every school and every group of students is different and so the solution should not be the same everywhere,” Patrick said. Referring back to the math class, Patrick said, “You know, they’re doing really well on the MCAS, but they’re not focused on the MCAS in classroom, I think it’s fair to say. They’re focused on the love of learning. They’re focused on the puzzle solving and problem solving.”
“Receivership is a measure of last resort,” Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester told reporters. He also said the state will soon have some “outstanding results” to share about Lawrence Public Schools, which were taken into a receivership.
Test scores released Wednesday point to other problems. According to Strategies for Children, 43 percent of third grade students statewide did not score proficient in reading, and 65 percent of children in low-income families lag in reading. The group said there’s been no progress on the benchmark for a decade.
“The consequences of reading failure at this age are significant,” Carolyn Lyons, president and CEO of Strategies for Children, said in a statement. “Struggling readers are four times less likely to graduate high school on time than proficient readers, jeopardizing their prospects for participating in our global knowledge-based economy.”
Sixth grade English teacher David Place, who received a funny look and a warning when he told an educator he was taking a job at Orchard Gardens, said the turnaround designation made the school a “blank canvas” where officials added athletics, arts, time for teacher-to-teacher meetings, and an extended day that lasts until 5:15 p.m. for much of the week for older students.
“I have witnessed a transformation like no other,” said kindergarten teacher Lillian Pinet, who grew up in the neighborhood, which is between Newmarket and Ruggles.
Val Shelley said her sister was a “diehard and refused to leave” when the neighborhood dwindled, and fought for a school for the area where Shelley said children were bused to 30 different schools. She said, “We now have a school that we can call our own.”
District-wide, Boston Public Schools are breaking records, said School Committee Chairman Michael O’Neill.
“Our graduation rate is the highest it’s ever been in Boston. More of our students are going to college than ever before. Arts and athletics are returning to our schools, and we’re at the highest enrollment in eight years. Today we’re at 58,000 students,” said O’Neill, who said the committee would be ready to put in place a new, permanent superintendent “hopefully by the summer of 2014.”
President Bill Clinton stopped in the Orchard Gardens neighborhood in 2000 to discuss crime, while Patrick seemed pleased to hold the school up as an educational example, patiently answering questions posed by fourth graders.
“I have a soft spot for Orchard Gardens,” Patrick said during his announcement of the standardized testing results.
In a classroom where a teacher was reading fourth graders “Amazing Grace,” Patrick jumped in to finish the children’s book and chat with the students, and talk about his grandmother and grandfather who only made it through third grade and moved from Louisville, Ky., to Chicago in the 1930s.
Patrick said when he first went to Milton Academy on scholarship, he thought the jacket required by the jacket and tie dress code was a windbreaker.
“I had really great teachers who understood how awkward it was,” Patrick said.
Boston mayoral candidates Bill Walczak and John Barros, a former School Committee member, attended the event, as Patrick visited two classrooms and then made an educational announcement.