Turning Around an Urban School

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Turning Around an Urban School with Hard Work and Individualized Student Supports

The English High School - Boston, MA

Ligia Noriega-Murphy was appointed Headmaster of The English High School (EHS) in Boston in 2012 to spearhead improvement efforts at this Level 4 “turnaround school.” EHS had persistent performance issues on Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) testing; in 2012, only 39% of 10th grade students scored proficient in English Language Arts (ELA) and only 31% scored proficient or advanced in Math. [1] [2]

As a school in turnaround, Noriega-Murphy and her staff faced the immediate need to increase student proficiency while ensuring that all the academic, social and physical needs of EHS’s nearly 600 students were met – no small task. Located in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, nearly 90% of EHS students qualify for free or reduced lunch. [3] The student body is largely made up of students of color; approximately 56% of students are Latino and 38% are African-American/Black. Nearly one-quarter of EHS students receive special education services, and more than 40% are English Language Learners. [4]

Noriega-Murphy and her staff began their work by collecting and analyzing data for all seventh and eighth graders in the Boston Public School system (BPS). “We wanted to get a picture of the students we would be serving,” Noriega-Murphy says. They then mapped this data on attendance, course grades for each term, and MCAS scores to get information about each incoming student and the student body overall. “We wanted to understand trends and student needs so we could assign ninth graders to teachers with certain skill sets, as well as align support services like school guidance or social workers,” Noriega-Murphy says.

Noriega-Murphy also implemented a system of immediate assessment during the first two weeks of school to gather data on tardiness, attendance and materials proficiency. Using real-time data from these assessments, Noriega-Murphy and her staff reassigned students to the class levels that matched their skill levels, where necessary. She and her staff also used current and historical data to place students with skills deficits in extra math and ELA periods during the school day. Teachers implemented specially designed curriculum during these double periods and students received small group tutoring from non-profit partners.

Teachers also began convening each week for grade-level conversations around student needs. As part of this, Noriega-Murphy and her staff created a system called Partners in Education (PIE) to reduce absenteeism. “With PIE, each teacher has 10 ninth grade students that they follow and monitor closely,” she says. Teachers are responsible for reaching out to families and working to ensure students come to school. While this was extra work, Noriega-Murphy says: “When teachers see the results on how this impacts students performance and behavior, there’s a lot of buy-in.” EHS also created its own tracking system for disciplinary incidents that helped identify patterns. “If our database shows a student sleeping in multiple classes, we try to figure out what is going at home,” Noriega-Murphy says. “We want to look at the root causes of the symptoms and address them with student support services and interventions with families.”

In Year 2, Noriega-Murphy reports that data they collected informed further targeted interventions. “We identified about 25 students with interrupted learning who came to high school with large skills deficits,” she says. “Some couldn’t decode or even complete simple addition.” To respond to this high academic need, Noriega-Murphy and her staff created a small academy within the school. Instead of six teachers, these students learned from just three teachers over the day to minimize transitions and provide a high level of support.  

Noriega-Murphy says that it took about three years for EHS to be able to align their interventions most successfully, but the results have been remarkable. By the 2015 school year, 66% of EHS 10th grade students scored proficient or advanced in Math, up from 36% in 2014. In ELA, 84% scored proficient or advanced, up from 51% in 2014. Further, 10% of students scored in the advanced range for ELA in 2015; no students had achieved this in the previous year. [5] In addition, the percentage of students absent for 10 or more days each year has dropped nearly 17% since 2012. [6]

Noriega-Murphy believes that the accreditation process has been a key part of information gathering that helped guide school improvement at EHS. “NEASC accreditation is the lens that helps us see everything we need to be doing, all the things that need to be connected, to help the students who attend our school and their families.”  Noriega-Murphy says that during her initial two years at EHS, NEASC became a partner as she and her staff worked to implement changes and improve accreditation status. “NEASC was a great support for me as a transitioning leader,” she says. “NEASC resources were helpful for best practices and school improvement strategies, and leadership helped us with strategies to fulfill requirements in a timely way without stopping other work that needed to get done.”

As accreditation takes a holistic look at a school, its review of underperforming schools can provide a roadmap for improvement in priority areas, as well as highlight the quality work being done. “We need to use all the information and data we can,” says Noriega-Murphy. “It’s like an annual physical, a diagnostic where experts come to see what works and what doesn’t and provide support to make change.”

[1] MCAS Annual Comparisons, The English High School, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (Mass DOE). 

[2] Jeremy C. Fox, “Newly released English High MCAS scores show major gains,” The Boston Globe, October 22, 2015.

[3] Analysis-DART, The English High School, Mass DOE. 

[4] Enrollment, The English High School, Mass DOE. 

[5] Fox, “Newly released English High MCAS scores show major gains.

[6] Student Support, The English High School, Mass DOE. Available at:


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NEASC 2016-05