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The Remarkable Turnaround Of The Orchard Gardens School

A student paints at Orchard Gardens School. (Ava Aguado/WBUR)

A student paints at Orchard Gardens School. (Ava Aguado/WBUR)

What happens if you trade security guards for easels and music stands? Can a focus on arts education transform a school? For one school in Roxbury, the answer is, yes.

Orchard Gardens is a big K-8 school, with 900 students. English language-learners comprise half the student body. Ninety percent of the kids come from low-income families. The school was struggling, and the students never scored well on a host of statewide standardized tests. At one time, Orchard Gardens was one of the five worst schools in all of Massachusetts.

All that changed three years ago when Principal Andrew Bott first arrived.

Bott is young. He’s in his 30s. His close cropped hair is starting to go a little gray. The navy blue Orchard Gardens shirt he’s wearing — just like every single one of his students — is snug enough to reveal a little pudge around the waist. But the most striking thing about Bott is his bright, clear, powder blue eyes that radiate kindness, focus and pride.

In 2010 Orchard Gardens was named one of a dozen so-called “turnaround schools” in Boston. The designation is important, because it unlocked $4 million of additional federal funding when the school became one one of several arts and humanities pilot schools supported by the Obama administration. More crucially, it gave Bott the freedom to make dramatic changes not possible in other public schools.

And he did. Bott wanted to change the culture of the school. He extended the school day. And he replaced 80 percent of the teachers. They all agreed to get rid of the security guards who once patrolled the halls. And they helped design the arts-centered curriculum evident in almost every classroom we visited in the school.

(Listen to the segment for interviews with Bott, and several students we met at the school.)

Three years later, there’s no doubt Orchard Gardens has changed.

But it’s time to ask the question about results. Today, in a political climate where schools are measured by performance numbers, Orchard Gardens still has a long way to go. The school’s Spring 2012 MCAS proficiency levels still lag significantly behind state averages in every category and grade.

But if you look at another set of numbers, Orchard Gardens shines. It’s in the top 2 percent of Boston public schools in terms of the rate of student improvement.

The question now is whether that improvement can be sustained. The school’s $4 million federal grant runs out at the end of this month. But Bott is confident the school can stay on track due to the new staff and its commitment to reform.

Guests

Andrew Bott, principal at Orchard Gardens School

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Hosts Meghna Chakrabarti and Anthony Brooks introduce us to newsmakers, big thinkers and artists and bring us stories of relevance to Bostonians here and around the region. Live every weekday at 3.

WBUR's Sacha Pfeiffer is co-hosting Radio Boston while Meghna Chakrabarti is on maternity leave.

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