A Winning School: Lessons from a Highly Successful Massachusetts High School

By Barry Bluestone | Boston.com | May 29, 2012Shawsheen student

One of Massachusetts’ public high schools has a 97 percent graduation rate and a dropout rate of less than .02 percent (3 out of 1,323 students).  It ranks among the highest percentage of students scoring advanced or proficient in the 2011 MCAS assessments (97% in Language Skills; 85% in Math; and 91% in Science.)  The school valedictorian is headed to M.I.T. this fall and over 70% of the senior class is on its way to college.

Weston?  Wellesley?  Brookline High?  Newton North?   Actually, the school posting this incredible set of outcomes is Shawsheen Technical High School in Billerica.  Shawsheen is a vocational high school producing the next generation of skilled craftsmen and talented technicians for local private employers all through the region.  And these kids know how to read and count!

What’s the secret to Shawsheen’s success?  Recently, I asked Charlie Lyons, the school’s superintendent.   This is what I learned.

Shawsheen focuses on “relevance, rigor, and resources.”   Its courses, which include much of the standard fare of any high school – English, math, science – also includes courses with practical applications for the world of work.  Students can see how doing well in school can help them do well in life.   The school’s curriculum is rigorous and maintains high standards.   Students have different access points to that curriculum and the school uses high quality assessment tools to determine the strengths and weaknesses of each individual student in both academic and vocational courses.  After assessment, the school’s faculty applies this information to strengthen each student’s strengths and deal with each student’s weakness.

To assure success in this realm, resources are deployed strategically.  Shawsheen has class sizes of as little as 6 students to a teacher for students with a demonstrated need in reading.  (High performing students are taught in classes of 22 to 1.)  Students of similar ability are grouped together so that students work with curriculum materials that best fit their needs.

I asked Superintendent Lyons how his teachers are motivated to do such a good job.  He told me that teachers are selected on the basis of high qualifications.  Political influence plays no role in teacher selection.  The school pays its teachers well and measures student improvement for each teacher and shares this information with the teacher’s peers.   The goal is constant improvement in the teachers’ craft.

All of this is done under union contract.   Mr. Lyons has negotiated all teacher contracts for the past 20 years and has built mutual respect between the administration and local union leaders. Review of teachers by their peers was negotiated so that teachers that are not performing up to par are either counseled to improve their teaching or let go if their performance does not improve.   As long as the union believes there is due process and professional intent, the union is on board.   In the last ten years, Mr. Lyons can remember only one grievance filed by the union against the administration.

Shawsheen is a standout on another pressing matter in the Commonwealth.   Next year is 7th year in a row without an increase in health care insurance premiums.

Working with its Preferred Provider Organization (PPO) and Blue Cross, Shawsheen has negotiated preferred rates for certain medical procedures.  A yearly health claims assessment report from Blue Cross helps the school administration and its faculty to find ways to minimize claims.  The report provides feedback on hypertension, cholesterol levels, and pre-diabetes indicators.  Over the years, the school has worked to help its staff stay healthy.  It built a state of the art gym for faculty.  It has Zumba dancing classes every Wednesday after school.  It has developed an aggressive program to reduce smoking by its teachers and administrators.   It has helped reduce stress in part by building a day care center for its staff where twenty-nine children are now cared for while their parents work.  It has contracted with Weight Watchers for a weight reduction program.  So far thirty-seven faculty have participated and collectively they have shed 500 pounds.

Cutting down on tobacco use, keeping physically-fit, reducing stress and extra pounds have all meant fewer medical insurance claims and kept medical care inflation to zero percent.

If this were not enough to suggest Shawsheen has a lot to teach us about making our schools even better,  Superintendent Lyons crows about his school’s athletic prowess. Shawsheen athletic teams have incredible winning records in lacrosse, baseball, softball, and track … because the spirit of the school is “to always achieve.”

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