How To Really Reform A School (Hint: It Isn’t By Testing More)

Imagine, if you will, a school where children are exposed to music, art, dance, theater. Imagine a school where the hallways are lined with painting, sketches, sculpture, all created by its students. Imagine a place where arts education is valued as highly as “Zero Tolerance” policies.

Now picture this school in one of the poorest, most crime ridden neighborhoods in the city of Boston. Imagine it filled with 800 children, ranging in age from 5 to 14 years. See, in your mind’s eye, children in headscarves and saris. Imagine children with skin tones covering the whole range of the human experience.

Such a school exists, in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. The school is the Orchard Garden Pilot School, a K-8 public school that strives to meet the needs of the surrounding community.

To understand the uplifting success story of this school, we have to go back several years, to a time when the school was known for its violence, its crime, and its lack of discipline. In fact, Orchard Garden has gone through six Principals in seven years, as it tried to cope with the dangers of the area which threatened the students and teachers every day. The school was known as a place for failure. A place where students came to drop out and to fail.

All that changed in 2010 when Andrew Bott became principal of the troubled school. In an interview with NBC News, Bott said that he had come to a school that had too much of one thing, and not enough of something better. Bott stated:

“I had a huge security infrastructure and I decided to eliminate it completely and reinvest all of that money into the arts.”

You read that right: the arts.

Since the introduction of an integrated arts education approach, and the simultaneous removal of the “security” team, students at the urban school have succeeded in ways that go beyond all expectations.

Violence has decreased dramatically. Test scores have increased. In fact, Orchard Gardens’ growth on the language and mathematics state test scores over the past 4 years ranks in the top 10% of all schools in Massachusetts. Students are no longer dropping out in droves; in fact, some are headed for Boston’s most prestigious and competitive high schools. Perhaps most importantly, teachers are staying at the school, investing their energy, their passion, and their skills in the children of Roxbury.

If only this lesson would resonate beyond the walls of Orchard Park. If only those who seek to “reform” public schools would recognize what so many teachers have been saying for years. We don’t need more police, more rules, more standardization, more tests. We need more arts education!

We need more music. More painting. More theater. More creativity.

If only this lesson could resonate through the Department of Education.

Featured image by Meredith Bell. Available through a Creative Commons License 2.0



Karen is a retired elementary school teacher with many years of progressive activism behind her. She is the proud mother of three young adults who were all arrested with Occupy Wall Street. To see what she writes about in her spare time, check out her blog at "Empty Nest, Full Life"