Leading a School Beyond Turnaround

Lindsa McIntyre is in her fifth year as principal of the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Boston. “The Burke,” as it’s known locally, is the only high school in Massachusetts to have exited turnaround status. As part of the turnaround, all faculty were asked to reapply for their positions. We asked Principal McIntyre about her time at the Burke and the progress she has seen.

Tell us a little about the Burke.

The Burke is located in the heart of the Dorchester neighborhood, a community in Boston that has been historically marginalized due to inequalities in employment and housing. We have a lot of English language learners, sizable black and Latino populations, and a significant population of students with disabilities.

Given this is your fifth year at the Burke, how have you seen the school change?

One of the biggest things has been a huge shift in culture. The culture we have fostered at the Burke didn’t always exist. At one point, the culture here was that the classrooms were the teachers’ private domains. Doors were closed. There was little room for innovation or collaboration.

How did you change that?

For one, we thought about what instructional leadership should look like in a high-poverty school. We knew that we needed to unpack biases and assumptions about our students, and doing so meant unlocking classroom doors and supporting collaborative opportunities. When teachers and school leaders build an understanding of who our students are, it allows us to understand where our content should come from too.

We implemented an academy structure and built cohorts of smaller groups of students to provide students with more one-on-one attention. We also provided lots of social and emotional support to students. We have 20 to 25 social workers on staff daily who work with students individually, in small groups and with their families. To address the root causes of student performances, we also extended the school day and created double blocks.

What are some of the strategies you and your teachers have used to raise academic expectations for your students?

Our students are encouraged to engage in dialogue in their classes. We use the workshop model in the classroom, where teachers model problem-solving strategies for students to practice on their own and internalize what they are being taught. We accompany that with evidence-based instruction. We are partners with the Boston Debate League, which leads debate workshops, so our students are taught to ask questions like, “What is your evidence for making that claim?” and then support their ideas.

During school turnaround, a lot of partners and resources are often thrown at a school. How do you take advantage of opportunities without being overwhelmed by them?

While we are very open to working with partners, we are very compartmentalized about who we work with, and when. In fact, we have a staff member whose sole responsibility is to organize and manage these relationships. When we come together with our partners to talk about the work, we are careful to create an understanding of our goals and the mission of our school. Then we design the partnerships to fit those goals.

Rich partnerships with programs like City Year have given us the opportunity to have more adults in the classroom, and use them as model facilitators for groups of students. City Year members also travel with our students and provide mentoring, academic support and behavioral support.

In addition to the partnerships, a lot of autonomy comes with leading a turnaround school. How do you use that autonomy to its advantage?

Autonomy is one of the most important aspects of moving a school forward. Autonomy allows you to cultivate a school environment that meets the needs of the community and the individuals there. For example, when hiring a math teacher, I don’t just want any math teacher. I want a math teacher who is willing to support students that have been historically marginalized. Autonomy also allows us to do things like investigate more culturally relevant material to be taught in the classroom. Autonomy is everything.

That said, it’s up to the individual leading a school to understand their needs and accommodate them properly. One cannot take too much advantage of it.

How do you sustain progress after the turnaround process ends and you lose some of the resources and autonomy that come along with it?

One of the most understated challenges of turnaround work is building sustainable practices. One way do that is through the right partnerships. The Boston Teacher Residency (BTR) is a great example. Partnering with BTR allows us to have resident teachers in our classrooms alongside mentor teachers. 

Building capacity by developing professional learning communities is another way we sustain our positive gains. Having teachers work side by side as problem-solvers increases our ability to serve students more effectively. Building relationships with important institutions is also extremely important. Institutions like Boston College provide us with a large number of social work interns that help tremendously to mitigate our students’ social, emotional and behavioral challenges.

What are some of the other big challenges you face?

Another big challenge is being able to secure adequate resources to fund 21st century learning. Our district is starting to do a better job of recognizing how it costs a little more to give a black or brown boy or girl from an under-served community the educational resources they need to succeed, compared to their more affluent counterparts. But because we don’t have a rich alumni base, we don’t have the endowment other schools have, even compared to other public high schools in our area.

Another big roadblock we’ve run into is attendance. We are constantly asking ourselves: How do we get children to come to school and love being here? And, what can we do to keep them stimulated while they are here?

What’s the single biggest thing you attribute the Burke’s recent success to?

Building trust within our community and building opportunities for students that go beyond the walls of school and connect what we do to the global economy. We work hard so that our students can have rich lives and give back to the community they came from. The key to our work is to not be complacent and to continue to be committed to it. Although our recent success include a 15 percent decline in dropouts, and our English Language learners are performing at the 90th percentile in math, I’d like to say we’ve only just begun.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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