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One school's success story

LEARNING FROM BOSTON / Last of four parts

August 10, 2006

NEARLY 80% OF THE STUDENTS at Richard J. Murphy School, a worn but clean building in a neighborhood that's slightly more worn and slightly less clean, are poor. The vast majority are minorities. Many of them come from risky neighborhoods. In other words, Murphy is like many schools in Los Angeles -- except that it's in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. And most of its students go on to astounding academic success.

Murphy School's standardized test scores have surged upward in the last seven years. Its students score in the top 5% in reading and math among all Boston schools. About 70% of them are promoted into one of Boston's three elite "exam schools," the coveted high school seats open only to students who get top scores on an entrance test.

Not every Boston school has improved as much as Murphy. Yet the transformations there illustrate how dramatically a strong system of mayoral control can change schools. Murphy has benefited from an unfettered mayor who envisions goals for the district and fights for the money to reach them; a strong superintendent who sets the standards and curriculum and demands results; and an empowered and talented principal focused on parents, teachers and students.

Of course, there are many successful schools in L.A. too, and they use some of the same strategies that have worked for Murphy. But the school's achievements can be directly linked to the change in accountability and attitude that mayoral control brings about. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's plan to take some control of the L.A. Unified School District, which the state Senate will consider next week, doesn't go far enough in changing the culture -- and the lines of responsibility -- to have such an effect.

Like the neighborhood that surrounds the school, Murphy's 900-plus student body is ethnically mixed, with African Americans making up the single biggest group. Many of the students wear uniforms -- a light blue shirt and khakis -- that are so popular with parents that they will be mandatory in the fall.

Parental involvement is one area that has improved markedly under mayoral control. At Murphy, parents persuaded the school district to extend what was once an elementary school to eighth grade, as many other Boston schools have done. The extended grades provide students with long-term relationships with teachers and a more consistent program through their first nine years of education.

Like the rest of Boston public schools, Murphy has full-day kindergarten. It runs an academic after-school program for students whose parents work and gives them one-to-one help with their homework. This fall, like a growing number of elementary schools, it will offer pre-kindergarten.

Murphy's teachers, after some initial skepticism, appear to be thriving. Boston, like Los Angeles, has its own program to credential teachers. But in L.A., trainees are in charge of their own classrooms. In Boston, they work as aides to highly regarded teachers, learning by example and through feedback.

Even the district's centralized curriculum and strict standards are accepted as a day-to-day campus reality. One of the most striking features of Murphy School is to see those standards made manifest not only in the classrooms but in the library and hallways.

The standards are in black and white everywhere a visitor looks: The Boston curriculum puts great value on critical thinking and writing. Pictures and phrases glued to poster board aren't enough. Students must be able to articulate in writing not just their thoughts about literature and history but how and why they got their math answers. So student writing, along with student artwork, is posted everywhere at Murphy. Next to each piece of work is an excerpt from the city's learning standards, explaining how the assignment helped students master the goals.

Student achievement is encouraged in less subtle ways as well. During lunch, the students are asked to bring their books and spend 15 minutes reading after they've finished eating. It's more than an hour of extra reading each week, the teachers point out. The school holds Saturday sessions to prepare its students for the entrance tests to the exam schools.

Much of Murphy School's culture comes from Mary Russo, its principal. Russo is a passionate believer in parent involvement (if parents want school uniforms, they get them) and in a strong central curriculum, carried out by teachers who are continually trained by coaches and each other. Russo visits classrooms daily and gives weekly informal evaluations to each of the school's five dozen or so teachers.

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