Literacy, high expectations and social capital are key to helping students succeed in school and go on to college, says Matt Crowley ’15.
Crowley should know. He and a handful of other teachers at Brockton High School led one of the most storied—and studied—school turnarounds since standardized testing became mandatory in Massachusetts and then nationally more than a decade ago.
“Writing is thinking,” he says.
Crowley says Brockton High School’s turnaround began with a wake-up call. When the first MCAS was administered in 1998, 44 percent of Brockton High School students failed the English portion of the exam, and 75 percent failed in math.
Crowley, a history teacher and senior class adviser, knew Brockton needed to act quickly, before passing the test became a graduation requirement.
“We had to improve. It was a moral question,” he says. “If we didn’t act, three-quarters of our students weren’t going to graduate.”
He and a handful of other teachers formed an ad hoc “restructuring committee.” They faced challenges: Brockton High School was the state’s largest, with more than 4,000 students. Nearly two-thirds qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. Many were immigrants, and the number of English-language learners was growing fast.
The committee – with backing from the administration and the teachers’ union – started with a literacy campaign, training teachers in every class, from gym to math, to incorporate writing into their lessons. It paid off: The next year, the district’s 10th-grade MCAS English scores rose dramatically. Year after year, the gains continued. Fewer students dropped out, and more went on to college.
“What we did over time was raise expectations and allow kids to achieve things they didn’t think they could achieve,” Crowley says. “Expectations matter.”
The turnaround inspired Crowley to become an administrator at Brockton High. And he went back to school himself in 2007, attracted by UMass Lowell’s reputation for working effectively with public schools in Lowell, another city with a large immigrant population.
For his dissertation, Crowley decided to study his Creole- and Portuguese-speaking students from Cape Verde, whose numbers at Brockton High had more than tripled since 1999. They worked hard and wanted to succeed so they could help their families, but many were leaving high school before graduating to take jobs, while others went on to college.
“I saw some amazing kids make different choices, and I wanted to know why,” Crowley says.
Under the guidance of Assoc. Prof. Phitsamay Uy, Crowley found answers. Chief among them was social capital—connections with caring adults who could help them navigate the educational system.
Just as Crowley was finishing up, Woburn offered him a job as assistant superintendent. The district has a growing number of economically disadvantaged students and English language learners.
Crowley instituted the same kind of literacy campaign that had worked in Brockton, and in 2017, the International Center for Leadership in Education named Woburn Memorial High one of 25 National Model Schools for its rapid improvement.
In January 2018, Crowley was named superintendent. Now he is aligning the curriculum throughout the district, drawing on his own social capital—his connections at UMass Lowell.
“The professors are top-notch, and available and willing to be helpful to public schools,” he says. “It’s fun, it’s exciting and it’s a great job. Woburn is uniquely positioned to improve, because students and teachers are so talented and the community caring for each other here is truly off the charts.”
Read the full story and the entire fall issue of UML Magazine, live soon at uml.edu/magazine.