Lincoln Elementary is “just a school” trying to teach kids

SOURCE: The Boston Globe
By Joan Vennochi, Globe Columnist

Stefanie West, featured BSRI teacher and in “5th Grade Debates”

Stefanie West, featured BSRI teacher and in “5th Grade Debates”

IT’S NOT a charter. It has no special designation or overarching theme.

It’s “just a school,” said Sarah Hartnett, literacy coach at the Lincoln Elementary School in Revere — one that’s working hard at doing what every school is supposed to do, no matter what it calls itself. At the Lincoln, a team of educators, led by principal Jodi Gennodie, is trying to create a successful learning environment for every child who walks through the door, no matter what the circumstances, special needs, or level of parental involvement.

Their battle is far from over, but this K-5 school of about 670 is fighting the good fight — with help from the Bay State Reading Institute, a nonprofit that provides coaching and professional development to teachers and principals in all of Revere’s elementary schools.

According to the school’s website, nearly 70 percent of its students are low-income. English is not the first language for nearly half; 14 percent are “English-Language Learners,’’ meaning they are unable to perform ordinary classroom work in English. Nineteen percent have disablities. About 40 percent of the Lincoln’s students are Hispanic or Latino. Some are foster kids. Some are homeless.

The state Department of Education rates schools from Level 1 — excellent — to Level 5 — in serious trouble. The Lincoln had a Level 1 rating in 2010. In 2011, after Gennodie arrived, the school was rated at Level 2. It fell to Level 3 in 2012 and 2013, then moved back up to Level 2. Over that four-year time period, the poverty rate rose, as did the percentage of students who did not have English as a first language.

On Beacon Hill, education reform has evolved into a rancorous debate over charter school expansion. After years of legislative stalemate, the fight to lift the state cap on charters is now shifting to the courts. Three prominent lawyers recently co-filed a lawsuit to challenge the cap on constitutional grounds.

As that fight goes on, the Lincoln staff is engaged in its own daily fight to even the educational playing field, student by student, classroom by classroom.

Using the BSRI model, which Gennodie believes is key, teachers and support staff work together as teams. The students break down into groups, according to skill level. The groups rotate through a series of self-directed lessons, with each eventually participating in one teacher-directed session.

On a recent visit to Stefanie West’s fifth grade class, the teacher engaged one group of students in discussion about the Great Depression. Students in another group took turns reading to each other. Another group worked with tablets, while yet another set of students quietly debated the government’s role in easing the Depression.

One student in the debate group had arrived in Revere via Guatemala. A classmate translated the discussion into Spanish for him, and then translated his response into English for the rest of the group. The same collaborative model was in place in Jennifer Gazza’s kindergarten class. And while all these students were primed for a guest, it would be hard to manufacture their enthusiasm, or the accompanying atmosphere of orderly learning.

The group learning model was “very hard to sell,” acknowledged Gennodie. Planning for each group can add five hours to a teacher’s day. But the results are so powerful, some reluctant teachers are turning into believers. Others who resisted were transferred to other schools, according to Ed Moscovitch, one of BSRI’s co-founders.

It initially costs a district about $80,000 a year to join forces with BSRI. The nonprofit currently partners with 43 elementary schools in 10 districts across Massachusetts. It gets funding from the US Department of Education, the Massachusetts Legislature, and some private foundations.

The House Ways and Means Committee just allocated $400,000 for BSRI. But the funding level in the Senate budget is unsettled. The budget submitted by Governor Charlie Baker created a “consolidated school transformation” line item that would require nonprofits like BSRI to compete with each other. Moscovitch doesn’t think that’s a bad idea over the long term.

But if that’s the eventual budget outcome, it leaves nonprofits in the lurch for current commitments to institutions that are “just schools” who are just trying to do the hard work of educating children.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.