In the early 1990s Boston's public school system was still reeling from 20 years of acrimony around court ordered busing. Test scores were plummeting and there was turmoil at the top.
Ellen Guiney of the Boston Plan for Excellence says, "The superintendents would stay three, four years at the most." Steve Fernandez, teacher at the John D. O'Bryant Science & Math Academy remembers those years. "It was a probably a sense of chaos," he says. As public school parent Pat Swansey recalls, "I think there was a lack of focus, a lack of direction."
What direction it had was downhill. In 1995 the Jeremiah Burke High School was stripped of its academic accreditation. Eight other high schools had warnings or were on probation. In August of that year a seven-member school committee hired Thomas Payzant, the assistant secretary of education under President Clinton, to turn things around.
Payzant - who previously headed three other school systems - offered no silver bullet. However in the decade to follow he would make significant changes. "Ten years ago, most of the classrooms we would walk into you'd have the teachers standing in front of the room lecturing to students," says Payzant. "Now you'll see students much more engaged in conversations, in projects, some direct teaching with the lecture format, but much more engagement in the quality of the work that they're doing. That's what different."
This is the story of Tom Payzant and four other individuals who were deeply involved in the schools over the last decade: Roslindale parent Pat Swansey was guiding two sons through the system. Steve Fernandez was teaching science. High school junior Braulio Soto had just entered elementary school. And education activist Ellen Guiney was trying to reform the city's schools. "Before Payzant," says Guiney, "there was high variability, school to school, even classroom to classroom.
Today they all agree; the system has changed considerably.
"There are certain reforms that started under Payzant, such as small schools, coherent curriculum, aligned standards," says Guiney. As executive director of the Boston Plan for excellence - a not for profit that supports teacher training - Ellen Guiney says a fundamental change under Payzant was a focus on curriculum. "And that focus was the classroom. It was teaching and learning, it was professional development for teachers."
Braulio Soto says attending a high school that's been broken up into smaller schools is the biggest difference for him. "It's like something new for me because during summer they told me about the engineering school at Hyde Park and I was interested because I would like to become a graphic designer in the future. So it's a way for me to actually focus on something," says Soto.
But the 16 year-old does say there are some drawbacks to the smaller learning environment. "In the big school, I could say there was a little more freedom because you could walk all over the place. So, it's less time to socialize with your friends because they may be in another school."
Pat Swansey likes the school choice system that flourished under Payzant. Her son attends the Boston Arts Academy. "I think the pilot schools did make a difference. It provided students with another opportunity. It allowed my son to pursue music, something that he loves." But Swansey says educational support for students of color in the system is uneven, especially for black males. She thinks administrators at Boston Latin Academy could have done more when her oldest son decided to transfer out of the competitive exam school. "So to the extent that children of color are not encouraged, not supported in the exam schools, I do think that is an issue," she says. Her son Jeremi did graduate on time from West Roxbury High.
Physics teacher Steve Fernandez says there were milestones achieved under Payzant's watch. "I think there were really positive developments. I think they've tried to pull together the curriculum. Particularly in English and math," says Fernandez. But the 15-year teaching veteran says there have been negative developments, too. "For example, MCAS. And I view that as a negative milestone because there was an over-focus on getting students to pass a standardized test rather than really to engage students and teach them how to be critical thinkers."
Fernandez acknowledges MCAS scores have improved but at the same time, he says, drop out rates for black and Hispanic students have gone up. "So when the school system sees MCAS scores going up I think that's great," says Fernandez. "But I see a lot of kids leaving before they even take the MCAS, so I'm seeing a big dropout number."
Tom Payzant says there has been some success in reducing drop out rates, but agrees that more needs to be done. "It's still unacceptably high, it's about 30 %, and that's over a four year period. That's going to still be an issue that remains for my successor and there's going to have to be more attention to that."
That attention will start this June when the 65 year-old educator retires and a new superintendent is selected. In the meantime, Tom Payzant says he will continue to drop in unannounced at Boston public schools. And he adds he's proud of the work he's seeing. "This is what the work is all about in terms of having students get to the point where they graduate with a high school diploma that will enable them to go on to continuing education. And that's what access to opportunity requires in this day and age," he says.