The Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary School in Dorchester, MA teaches 350 students, 59% of whom are black, 29% Latino, 6% mixed race, 3% white, and 3% Asian. 82% of the student body is designated high needs, and 74% of the student population are from low-income households.
As recently as 2016, the Holmes School was struggling with poor test scores and student engagement. Seeking to make significant changes to better serve its students, Holmes Elementary embarked on a redesign plan to transform the school into an Innovation School as part of a Boston Public Schools initiative to implement creative strategies to improve student outcomes. Helmed by Principal Yeshi Gaskin Lamour, Holmes was able to transform itself through extensive faculty professional development and the implementation of a new student-centered social/emotional learning curriculum.
In 2016, Holmes Elementary School had an accountability ranking of 3%, placing the school among the lowest scoring schools statewide. The Holmes School was at risk of intervention due its low performance in state standardized tests. A large portion of the student base also struggled with social-emotional issues that were not being met, and poor engagement with classwork.
These were the largest challenges facing the Holmes School. Seeking to make serious changes for the better, the Holmes aimed to become an Innovation School and established a plan for improved outcomes for its students.
With these overarching challenges in mind, Holmes Principal Yeshi Gaskin Lamour established goals for the school’s redesign. The newly-envisioned Holmes would implement a student-centered curriculum, offer improved counseling to students with social-emotional needs, embrace parent engagement, and increase faculty autonomy.
Lamour established an innovation team among faculty to facilitate the professional development necessary for the plan’s success. This was an open process initiated through the School Site Council. Lamour ensured that parents and teacher union representatives were involved in the recruitment of the innovation team. Lamour asked parents why they wanted to continue sending their children to Holmes despite its struggles in order to gain a better understanding of the school community, and also consulted with the Center for Collaborative Education to learn more about personalized learning. The faculty was informed of every step in the process.
Lamour felt that transparency with faculty was key to stirring school-wide change and building trust in the process. Lamour made it clear that Holmes would be moving towards a new vision for equity and student engagement. Every staff member was invited to join the innovation team. To effectively convey what was involved, Lamour even drafted a job description for innovation team faculty, so that staff were well aware of expectations before signing on. Overall, five teachers, two staff members, and three parents joined the Innovation Team, with a union representative present at each meeting.
Principal Lamour feels that this open process was key to beginning the Holmes’ successful redesign. While there was some resistance to the redesign, a transparent approach that involved teachers and the community made for a smoother transition. Lamour made it clear where the school stood within the district. At risk of becoming a turnaround school, an under performing school required by law to develop a three-year turnaround plan to avoid district intervention, Holmes’ staff needed to make some big changes, and the teachers were invested in making a difference. Being open with the community and teachers from the start, Lamour and the innovation team were able to gain support and trust.
With an innovation team in place, Holmes developed a flexible learning model based on core tenets of personalized learning. The Holmes School joined the Center for Collaborative Education’s Personalized Learning Network, and worked closely with coaches from Center for Collaborative Education’s District and School Design team to bring this model to life.
The innovation team held two-hour-long monthly meetings, where staff discussed changes to the school, and devised a plan for introducing these innovations over time. The larger faculty was invited to observe and reflect on these proposed changes. The innovation team supported this work with text-based discussions to learn more about flexible learning schools.
School staff engaged in a variety of professional development opportunities, as well, with personalized learning coaches. Lamour noted that a focus workshop on blended learning was especially impactful, opening up teachers to possibilities they might not have considered otherwise. This encouraged teachers to really dig into their learning and get creative.
The Holmes staff brought coaching into the classroom as well. In the first year of the redesign process, Lamour herself, a literacy coach, and a special education coordinator were all available to provide in-class coaching. A math coach was added in the second year. Moving coaching into the classroom added an extra level of support to teachers engaging in professional development cycles.
Teachers also went out into the community to supplement their learning. Conferences and school visits were essential to the redesign process at Holmes. Holmes educators visited other expeditionary learning schools that were at various stages of implementation. These visits introduced the Holmes staff to new innovative practices and ideas, and helped them to build a strong network with other educators seeking to lead change. Presenting their work to other educators at conferences, Holmes teachers were empowered to share their learning and built a sense of shared leadership in the realm of flexible learning. Teachers were excited to see the impact their work had in leading change.
Supported by professional development and training around flexible learning, teachers began to put the flexible learning model into practice. Staff devised a new school schedule that would put more emphasis on literacy and math across all grade levels. This was supported by additional weekly professional development for faculty.
To start, educators planned lessons that would allow students to design their classrooms themselves, giving students the chance to choose furniture and create the layout for the classroom. Holmes Elementary School received funding to bring this plan to fruition, and the school met with a company that provides flexible learning furniture for schools, offering ideas for designs and layouts. Some students created classroom designs with LEGOS, while others drew their ideas out on paper. All students created art of the furniture they wanted to see in their classroom. Additionally, the Holmes School applied for and received a grant to transform the library into a makerspace.
Holmes Elementary also rolled out additional, improved supports for special education students, and students with social-emotional needs. Special education students received increased time on mathematics and literacy coaching.
Teachers also worked hard to keep students with behavioral issues in the classroom, and provided extended counseling services. Notably, the Holmes began a boxing program in the school gym that helped students alleviate some social and emotional stresses. Holmes Elementary also partnered with Rosie’s Place, a Boston-area organization that addresses homelessness. Rosie’s Place now sends a representative to the school once a week to help families in need of housing, food, and transportation.
Dojo, an app used to communicate with parents, has also been effective in keeping students engaged and in class. Teachers can use the app to notify parents of students’ progress in the classroom, and often use it when they notice something positive. Teachers have seen a lot of success in engaging students and parents with the use of Dojo.
Leading up to MCAS, teachers held competitions between classrooms about how students are mastering certain concepts. These led to a great improvement in student participation and engagement. The school also provided technology to every student. In doing so, students had a variety of ways in which to learn and were motivated in that aspect. All of these disparate elements were implemented schoolwide to provide consistency.
Moving beyond designing their own classrooms, teachers developed personalized learning projects that gave students a greater voice as well. Kindergartners explored recycling as a theme, developing a school-wide recycling initiative. First grade students studied deforestation, learning about subjects like erosion and the impacts it has on ecosystems. These students researched and created reports, all of which culminated in an exhibition for parents. The upper elementary grades went out into the community, studying themes of social justice. With student-centered projects that are relevant and engaging, Holmes saw significant improvement in classroom engagement.
While a lot of encouraging progress had been made, it was also important for the school to step back and reflect. The innovation team, the administrative team, and the school’s governance board all met to analyze the school’s work over the year, and identified some challenges the school faced in bringing the plan to life.
Perhaps the biggest challenge was balancing time management and meeting district mandates. Holmes wanted to give educators plenty of time to develop new schools, but they were also beholden to district expectations. Finding the right balance was difficult, but not an insurmountable obstacle.
While implementing the plan, the Holmes also had to be consistent throughout the school. This meant striving for unanimous buy-in, but also ensuring that teachers were able to give equal attention to all students when trying new, more student-centered projects. Getting technology to function properly was, and still is, an ongoing issue, but students are now much more comfortable in using technology in the classroom consistently.
Finally, the Holmes also had to overcome challenges in communicating with parents. Keeping the parents engaged, while also ensuring that they understood the changes happening at the Holmes was difficult at times. A lot of time was spent making parents fully aware of what was happening at the school.
In 2016, Holmes Elementary School identified four major challenges:
At the time, Holmes Elementary School was in danger of becoming a turnaround school, ranked as “requiring assistance or intervention”. The school ranked among the bottom 3% of similar schools statewide in accountability.
Since 2018 (elementary schools were not ranked in 2017), however, Holmes has addressed these challenges and now ranks as “not requiring assistance or intervention”, with an accountability ranking of 24%. 91% of Holmes students are meeting learning targets, where Boston Public Schools sees only 58% of students district-wide partially meeting targets.
While many of these numbers are linked to state test scores, Holmes Elementary School has made great strides in addressing its other challenges. Student engagement has improved drastically with the aid of classroom competitions, personalized learning implementation, and concentrated social emotional support. Students were able to receive counseling, and teachers worked proactively to ensure that students struggling with behavioral and social emotional issues stayed in the classroom. Improved parent-teacher communication via the Dojo app helped this process.
While Holmes’ redesign work is ongoing, the school has managed to pull ahead of district averages in just two-year’s time.