Studer Community Institute

Lessons from Brockton High School

  • June 30, 2015
  • /   Reggie Dogan
  • /   education
In 1999, the Boston Globe on its front page vilified Brockton High School as the “cesspool of education.” The low-performing public school was among the worst in New England. Only 7 percent of students were proficient in math, and 22 percent met requirements in reading. Seventy-five percent of students failed the math portion of the state standardized test; 44 percent failed in English/language arts. Five years later, Brockton had risen to among the best schools in Massachusetts. In 2009, The New York Times profiled the school's meteoric rise as a model of public education. In a front-page feature, The Times called Brockton High School a "jewel." The story laid out how Principal Sue Szachowicz and staff of the state’s largest school dramatically changed its culture and turned it into one of the nation’s top performing high schools.
Szachowicz had been a student, teacher, assistant principal and principal at Brockton. She’s now a senior fellow for International Center for Leadership in Education, and a featured speaker at the 2015 Model Schools Conference in Atlanta. Szachowicz on Tuesday, June 30, told the uplifting story of Brockton High’s meteoric rise to the top in education to hundreds of educators from around the country, laying out a blueprint for others to model. “How did we do this?” said Szachowicz, her words dripping with a thick New England accent. “It started with a team.” Selecting the right team is critical. At Brockton, the dream team was about two-third of teachers from different grades and subjects, and some principals, with a teacher and principal as co-chairs. Positive traits of a strong team include trustworthiness, accountability, reliability and honesty. Szachowicz was emphatic: "There is no silver bullet." Clearly, it took a lot of time, energy and passion, she said. And a key part was empowering the team to take ownership of the problems and find simple but sustainable solutions to fix them. At school, the formula was a complete focus on literacy with a heavy dose of writing in every subject, every class, every day. “At first we did it because we had to,” she said. “Now we do it because it works.” The largest high school in the state with more than 4,200 students, Brockton today is known nationally as the leader in urban education. The International Center for Leadership in Education, which each year recognizes 30 schools across the country that have met or exceeded the demands of No Child Left Behind Act, has named BHS a Model School for a record 12 straight years. U.S. News & World Report has twice identified the school as one of the nation’s best since 2007. The lesson applied and learned can be implemented at any school, anywhere, using five principles, Szachowicz said: focus, consistency, persistence, monitoring and replication. Brockton High put together a performance plan that placed constant and consistent attention on reading, writing, speaking and reasoning. “We didn’t focus on the test, we focused on literacy,” Szachowicz said. “It’s simple, not easy but simple.” As a model high school, Brockton’s success has been initiated and imitated, with measurable and admirably success, in schools throughout the nation. Virginia’s Mount Vernon High School and Poughkeespie High School in New York are two examples of schools that duplicated Brockton succesful strategy with glowing results. Education guru Pedro Noguera praised the school’s concerted effort, saying: “At Brockton, you don’t have to change the student, you have to change the condition under which they learn.” Brockton dispels the notion the schools in economically deprived communities can’t thrive. Nicknamed the Boxers, Brockton is an urban school in a tough neighborhood about 25 miles from Boston. It is the proud home of legendary pugilists Rocky Marciano and “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler. Not only the state’s largest school, it is also one of the most diverse — more than 80 percent of students are come from low-income households and more than a third speak a language other than English at home. What sets it apart is high expectations and a dedicated academic focus, a strong sense of school spirit and community pride. Principal Sharon Wolder credits the school’s success to maintaining consistent with its improvement plan, and implementing a complete school-wide focus on literacy and empowering staff to increase achievement for all students. “What we do for ourselves, we do for the kids,” said Wolder. “We’re sustained by using methods that work for kids and adults.” When Wolder was hired as a teacher during the school’s struggling years, people told her she “would be dead in a week.” She rose from teacher, to housemaster, to associate principal to principal over the past 21 years. “We try to make things better everyday for our students,” she said. “It’s the only school in the (ICLE) to be a model school for 12 years.” With a 93 percent attendance rate and only a 1 percent dropout rate, Brockton graduated 922 students in 2015, and 91 percent of them received acceptance to college. While Szachowicz is no longer at the school, she’s a lifelong Boxer who carries the message of Brockton’s rise from the bottom to the top with pride and satisfaction. “If we can do it, anybody can do it,” Szachowicz said. “They called us a cesspool, now they call us a jewel.”.