The recent history and current status of the Parker School in New Bedford needs to be clarified in light of its recent Level-5 designation by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Those not familiar with the school need to understand more than what the DESE has asserted recently in press releases and meetings in New Bedford. This document intends to provide a more accurate accounting of the Parker School to those interested in current turnaround efforts in New Bedford — and specifically, the Parker School.
Because I was the Parker principal for the first three years of turnaround efforts and might therefore be considered biased, I use data available on the DESE's website.
The commissioner of DESE reportedly referred to the Parker School as being "stuck." I contend that it is the DESE that is "stuck" — on one indicator — and ignoring so many more over the last two years. Specifically, the MCAS data shows that:
When compared among all 19 New Bedford Public Schools elementary schools, Parker is in the middle of the group on some indicators and among the leaders in other categories — including the DESE's Student Growth Percentile and overall Progress and Performance Indicator.
When compared with the other Massachusetts schools recently designated Level-5, Parker school is not at all in the same category of progress and performance — but rather significantly higher performing in all categories. There appears to be no correlation between Parker's performance and the other Level-5 schools' performance.
In addition to MCAS data, other non-MCAS goals — including both academic and social-emotional support indicators — were met or exceeded for the three years.
Lastly, the DESE site review teams documented the progress at Parker in two reviews within four school months and stated that they had not seen such progress in a short time anywhere.
Three overarching factors provide some understanding of the Parker's turnaround experience to date:
Although declared Level-4 in March 2010, Parker was given only two years for actual turnaround implementation, because of the timing of DESE, NBPS and the Parker administration to recruit a team, develop a turnaround plan and start the actual focused work.
Although supported for significant amounts of teacher training, Parker had minimal supports in the areas of coaching and needed technology enhancements.
DESE appears to have made its Level-5 decision based only on MCAS English Language Arts scores not improving enough. It set the 2010 score baseline and the three-year target scores based on No Child Left Behind expectations. Since then, the DESE has substituted more realistic, post-NCLB goals for all schools in the state — except Parker's original cohort of Level-4 schools.
The data show Parker school should have been given one or two more years of Level-4 status to continue its progress. The question is, why wasn't it?
Whether or not the Level-5 designation stands, going forward we should use all of the experience we have gained — both as a school and, hopefully, as a state education authority — and concentrate on four areas that will ensure progress and ultimate success at Parker School and any other school needing a turnaround approach:
Stability: Parker staff turnover since the Level-4 designation is 78 percent, primarily due to Level-4 and Level-5 designation uncertainties. Before the Level-5 designation, Parker staff had coalesced as a team and had stabilized.
Supports: Although an obvious turnaround element, it is the type of support that is crucial. If the support is focused and is part of a sustainable model, it should not take very high funding levels.
Time: Two years of plan implementation rarely bring sustainable turnaround. The DESE must realize that if so many indicators are positive after two years, any such school should have four to five years to complete a turnaround.
Humanity: Spend some time with the people who are most affected by the decision. DESE district liaisons serve one purpose, but those at higher bureaucratic levels have to know more about what is happening in schools — and consider people's commitment and efforts as well as their competence — and not just short-term scores. Honor the investment made.
DESE should reconsider the Level-5 designation and extend the Level-4 status. In any case, DESE must provide the current principal and her team the commitment needed to work effectively over the coming years, without the uncertainty of yet another disruptive change next year.
The fuller study referred to above shows the actual data, explains more fully why the Parker Level-5 designation contradicts the DESE's own indicators, and compares the progress and current relative standing of the Parker School within New Bedford schools and among some other underperforming schools statewide.
Paul Fay is the former principal of Parker School. Mr. Fay's full study, can be viewed at https://db.tt/yBz2uKG3.