One parent said her son wasn’t successful or able to get the help he needed in a private school. Now, she said, “He can’t wait for Monday.”
West Broadway Middle School is a window into the promise of urban public schools when they have strong and positive leaders who are able to hire and build their own teams and then empower them with the freedom and flexibility they need to excel as teachers. It is proof of the crucial role that strong relationships play in student learning, academic achievement, and family engagement. Even more, it offers a window into what our educators and school leaders can do when given a real chance.
West Broadway Middle School is a new school in its second year that serves students in grades 5 through 8. As the number of middle school aged children in Providence spiked and as a result of prior school closures, a pretty urgent need for a new middle school arose. The district was deliberative about what grades it would serve, what the schedule would be, and who would run it. It tapped Bill Black, a former teacher, father of three young children, and graduate of RIDE’s Aspiring Principals program. And it allowed the school’s founding principal to hire his whole staff. Bill is the first to admit that having the opportunity to build his whole team from scratch was a huge advantage toward creating a welcoming school culture.
Which he has done in spades. Indeed, I discovered West Broadway because of the immense school pride and excitement pouring from the school’s Twitter handle. After following the school on Twitter, I was blown away by the total “wow factor” that comes across from their principal and staff. Students are photographed wearing “can’t stop, won’t stop” leggings. Teachers are shown hanging college pennant flags. And the amount of praise, good vibes, gifs, and exclamation points on their feed is inspiring. It didn’t take long for me to decide that being a Twitter follower wasn’t enough. I wanted to visit myself.
And I wasn’t disappointed.
I immediately felt welcome when I walked in the door at West Broadway Middle School. Two ladies were in the hallway greeting kids and writing late passes when I arrived; it didn’t hurt that they both told me they loved my shoes. Mrs. Brown, the office manager, couldn’t have been more affable (and funny too!). Everyone seems to agree that she is the “glue” in the building and just moments after shaking my hand and making me feel so welcome, she was out in the front hallway literally dancing with a student.
What’s Happening in Classrooms?
I visited three classrooms during my visit and in each, a couple things struck me. Each class was full of students of color. Each class had students fully engaged (with one exception of a student who couldn’t find her glasses and was having some trouble looking at the computer screen). I saw blended learning in action, where groups of kids worked on programs that were adaptive and that monitored their progress for them (and their teacher) to see in real time. I saw a classroom of fifth graders work in stations and transition so seamlessly that I had to ask Mr. Black how everyone knew to just get up and move; he smiled and said that teachers had invested time early in the year working on structures and routines and it had really paid off.
There were small groups working with the teacher, while others worked on computers, while others worked in notebooks. In one classroom, the teacher was sitting on the floor with a group of students as they practiced making inferences based on short video clips; each time the teacher asked a question, hands shot up in the air. And just a few feet away, students were zoned in on computers, wearing headsets and working diligently on something else.
And the Teachers Say
The positivity and enthusiasm that the staff exudes on Twitter definitely carries over into their work inside the building. When I spoke with a 6th grade math teacher, she couldn’t say enough about how much she loves working at West Broadway (and she is a veteran teacher with experience in other places.) Because they are a new school, prospective teachers must make the conscious choice to apply and judging from the number of applicants, it has turned out to be a very competitive process. The school is only in its second year and Principal Black estimates that they have already interviewed around 300 teaching candidates. They follow the same criterion based hiring policy as the rest of the Providence Public Schools. He expresses tremendous gratitude for having a staff that is as committed to the hiring process as he is (especially since it requires them to come in and participate in interviews during the summer).
“I don’t want to make those decisions by myself” he says.
He explains that there are two central questions that drive all deliberations over who to hire:
- Who is better for the kids?
- Why are they better for the kids?
A theme that consistently comes up in talking to the teachers is collaboration. Common planning time is a priority and so is giving teachers the autonomy to teach the content in the way that best suits their style and vision for their classroom. Principal Black is adamant that he does not want his teachers using anything scripted. On the contrary, he believes wholeheartedly that “teacher autonomy, flexibility, and freedom” are key components to the positive culture he and his team are building together.
Providence Superintendent Chris Maher likes what he sees:
“The backbone of West Broadway’s success is the collaboration and support among the staff. You’d be hard-pressed to find a staff that supports each other more than they do. This is evident every time you step into the building. And it is contagious. Adults model this behavior for students, who follow suit. There is also a culture of continuous improvement. Teachers are transparent about the fact that they are also learners. By communicating this to students, the staff and students identify a common ground and create a culture of learning that permeates the school.” -Chris Maher, Superintendent of Providence Public School District
How are they Doing?
In talking about results and data, Principal Black makes a distinction between perception data and student achievement data and says that both are important. I was unsure what he meant by “perception data” and so he explained that it is the intentional positivity and joy over Twitter, in robocalls home to students and families(in which he attempts to rap), fun videos he makes for staff, and accolades and awards. All of that paints a picture and creates a narrative that does have a dramatic impact on student and school data. For example, West Broadway had the highest attendance rate of any school in the entire city of Providence last year and this year, they have the highest rate for all the middle schools.
Principal Black is totally up front about how, in their first (and now second) year, he made a decision to focus mostly on math. The achievement data they saw for the kids coming to them in 5th and 6th grade last year left no question that the greatest area of need and focus was math – and he was honest with his staff about it. If they were going to do triage in the first couple years, math had to get the most attention because of how far behind so many of the students were upon their arrival to West Broadway.
And now, less than two years later, West Broadway has the strongest growth in math of all the middle schools in Providence Public Schools. And they are third in growth for ELA.
What about PARCC?
Students who took PARCC last year at West Broadway had been in the school for about seven months and as expected, the scores were very low, below 10% proficiency in both math and ELA. In many ways, last year’s testing served as a baseline. While the school was supposed to roll out with only fifth and 6th graders, a last minute change was made and new arrivals to the United States who had had a break in their formal school of six months or less became West Broadway’s inaugural (and unexpected) 7th and 8th graders. While some received waivers for the ELA portion of PARCC because of language barriers, all students took the math.
Principal Black decided to do paper based tests for PARCC this year instead of the computerized version he opted for last year. In hindsight, he sees using the computerized tests as a mistake because it meant that his teachers lost all of their devices for blended learning in the classroom for a full six weeks. They saw a dip in student data during that time on their in-school assessments too and he is convinced that losing access to computers played a role.
When I ask if he thinks about PARCC a lot or if he’s nervous or worried about how they’ll do this time around, he exclaims with a smile, “of course I think about it! I think about everything because I’m obsessed with this job.” But he says he subscribes to former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s belief that “that there are no big things, only an accumulation of little things done well” and he references how Wooden never talked about winning. He shares the story of how Wooden started every season by explaining to players at the first practice how to put on their socks. Principal Black believes that if they do things the right way — and he specifically cites relationships and quality instruction as the “socks” in his case- the rest, including PARCC, will take care of itself.
West Broadway Middle School in Providence, Rhode Island is a place students and staff want to be. In two short years it has shown itself to be proof that with strong relationships, teacher autonomy, high quality instruction, and a sense of humor—the lots of little things—a district school serving low income urban students of color can and will succeed. There is no doubt that West Broadway Warriors are already well on their way.
And I’m already looking forward to my next visit.