Educator discusses boosting academics

The Leader-Herald

JOHNSTOWN – Celebrated former Brockton High School Principal Susan Szachowicz told area educators Wednesday she worked hard with her teachers to turn her school from one of the worst to the best in Massachusetts.

“No teacher goes into this business to see students fail,” she stated. “We knew it was all about literacy.”

The now-retired Szachowicz’s efforts at her gang-influenced, 4,300-student urban high school, 30 miles south of Boston, made the front page of the New York Times. About 76 percent of the students are under the poverty level. Brockton students speak 49 different languages, and 59 percent are black, 24 percent white, 12 percent Hispanic and smaller percentages are Asian and multiracial.

Greater Johnstown School District Superintendent Robert DeLilli said Szachowicz’s story was a good reason to bring her to speak Wednesday at Johnstown High School at the start of the 2013-14 school year.

DeLilli introduced Szachowicz as Brockton High School’s “greatest cheerleader.” The Brockton native spent 40 years in education and served as her school’s principal from 2004 to her retirement in 2012. She has been lauded with leading a literacy initiative in recent years that moved her school from its status as one of the lowest-performing in the state to one of the highest. Her work helping low-income and non-English-speaking students gained high marks from many educators.

“This is the first September since I was five I was not starting school,” Szachowicz said.

She earned her doctorate in educational leadership and administration from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Originally a history teacher at Brockton High, she was the Social Science Department head for many years. In 1999, she was appointed the associate principal for curriculum and instruction and in that capacity, directed the school’s literacy initiatives to improve student achievement.

Szachowicz used a four-step approach to turn things around, the first of which was to create a paid “empowerment team” of teachers who would meet on Saturdays. She said the faculty decided “this isn’t the best you can be” when reviewing horrible grades.

“We worked hand-in-hand with the teachers’ union and didn’t violate teacher contracts,” she said.

She said the faculty was “appalled” at test scores and the way Brockton was portrayed in the media.

The other steps included focusing on literacy, implementing a plan and monitoring the program “like crazy.”

“The kids are kids,” the former principal said. “They come to school with the goal of doing as little as possible,”

But Szachowicz said Massachusetts prides itself on having tough education standards.

Back when she started as principal, she said the Boston Globe called Brockton “one of the worst performing schools” in the commonwealth.

In 1998, Brockton’s English Language Arts statewide testing score was 22 percent and math was 7 percent. Those figures are currently 83.3 percent for ELA and 70.3 percent for math. The school’s failure rate for both subjects dropped from 75 percent to 8.7 percent in math, and from 44 percent to 1.9 percent in ELA during the same period.

“It’s about a change in the culture of the school; a school that did not value academics,” Szachowicz said. “There wasn’t any consistent set of standards that counted.”

As principal, she said it was her job to make sure the kids were prepared. Some old unrelatable curriculum topics, such as the works of William Shakespeare, were shelved. Meanwhile, Szachowicz said she told her teachers to “stop whining” about having to meet standards.

She said 859 students made the honor roll in 1998, and 1,561 students made the list in 2012 by the time she retired.

Szachowicz said her school eventually focused on the three Rs – “rigor, relevance and relationships.” It took a lot of hard work, but she said her faculty was pushed to do more to reach the kids.

“As far as faculty, I think we were living in denial,” she said. “We had no cohesiveness, as far as [trying for] excellence.”

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