Whatever Phil Wants

East Boston High School, School on the Move

JFY’s history with East Boston High

by Gary Kaplan

Last Thursday’s Boston Globe reported on a ceremony that took place the day before at the Westin Copley Place. It was the annual School on the Move award celebration sponsored by the education funder EdVestors.  Every year, EdVestors holds a competition for Boston schools with a $100,000 prize. It’s a tough contest with a long and intensive list of qualifications. It attracts dozens of applications. This year’s winner was East Boston High School.

I was there because East Boston High is one of our longest-standing partner schools and I wanted to see it get the recognition it deserves. I wanted to see Headmaster Phillip Brangiforte finally receive the accolades he has earned for bringing the school back from the brink of receivership to the very top of the heap in the Boston Public Schools. And I wanted to hear his acceptance speech.

The speech did not disappoint. It was vintage Phil. He talked about his family roots in East Boston, his unique relationship with the school, his long struggles to improve its academic and social standing. It was heartfelt and humorous. It drew frequent laughs. He thanked his staff, his students, his family, the community, his funders, the nonprofit partners who provide support services. As he segued into his peroration, I thought he had exhausted the catalogue of acknowledgements. But he had one more. He thanked JFY for always giving him anything he wanted.

That was an accurate characterization of our longstanding relationship with East Boston High School. Ever since JFY first began working with Eastie in 2015, we have given Phil anything he wanted. And he wanted a lot.

In fact, he needed a lot. At the time, East Boston High School languished at the bottom of the state ranking system. MCAS scores were dropping. The graduation rate of 56% was well below the district and the state. There was loud talk of “turnaround,” equivalent to receivership.

Right: EBHS Headmaster Phillip Brangiforte, JFY Executive Director Gary Kaplan, Assistant Headmaster Judith Blanco at the EdVestors award ceremony 11/8/23. – Photo by Paula Paris

EBHS Headmaster Phillip Brangiforte, JFY Executive Director Gary Kaplan, Assistant Headmaster Judith Blanco at the EdVestors award ceremony 11/8/23

When I first sat down across the desk from him,  Phil didn’t know much about JFY. He knew we had had success at other schools, but he was skeptical about transferability. East Boston was different, he told me. It had a unique identity and culture. And he had a unique relationship with the school. He wasn’t just a hired-hand headmaster. He was a graduate. He had already been working in the school for many years. He had children in the school. And he was a lifelong resident of the neighborhood who had grown up in sight of the school’s red brick façade. His mandate to rescue East Boston High School was not just professional: it was personal. And if JFY came into the school, our commitment had to be more than just transactional.  It had to be existential.

And so we started. That first year, MCAS scores in ELA (Proficient/Advanced under the old system) went up 9 points and math rose 7. Phil was happy. I was massively relieved. Subsequent years stayed on script, and the graduation rate followed suit. By the end of the old Legacy MCAS in 2018,  the graduation rate had risen from 56% to 74% and the state Accountability Level had gone from Level 3—among the lowest 20% in the state—to “meeting targets, not requiring assistance.” Receivership was off the table.

The next few years were epically disrupted. First, the new MCAS 2.0 introduced a revamped test and totally new scoring system in 2019. Just as we were deciphering the new code, the pandemic shut down schools in March 2020 and cancelled that year’s MCAS. The following year, 2020-21, was a year of improvised online instruction with scattered MCAS participation and predictably low scores in the new system. Then we returned to the building in the fall of 2021 and struggled to restore what Congress calls regular order. After two years of frustration, Phil’s expectations were high. So was my anxiety.

What I had learned about Phil over the previous years was that his expectations were equally high for everyone, including himself. Once we agreed on an implementation plan, he held his faculty and himself accountable for executing it. When MCAS time rolled around  in the spring of 2022, those expectations were bumping up against the top of the scale.

And they were met. They were more than met. East Boston High regained  all its pandemic losses in English Language Arts, exceeding its 2019 score by 8 points, while coming within 1 point in math. In comparison, the district gained two points over 2019 in ELA and fell 6 points short in math.  The state was down 3 points in ELA and 9 points in math. East Boston was the only open enrollment high school in Boston that closed its pandemic learning gaps.

Meanwhile, Phil hadn’t allowed the multiple disruptions to distract him from his other target: the graduation rate. From that disappointing 56% in 2014 the rate had risen in 2022 to 93.6%– higher than the district’s 81%, which included the exam schools, and the state’s 90.1%.

None of that success has caused Phil to relax. He still wants more. My phone still rings with that insistent jangle that tells me  Phil wants something. This year it’s writing. We have to improve it. What have I got for him?  New software?  Yes, Phil, sure. How about AI? OK, Phil, we’ll develop it.  And EL — the data say we need more focus on EL students. Whatever you want, Phil.

Anything he wants. Because what he wants is what the students need. And over these nine years, I’ve learned to trust his judgement about needs. He always knows the data, but his requests are driven by more than numbers. The urgency comes from a commitment rooted in his identification with the school, the students, the families, starting with his own, the neighborhood. I could go on, but you get the idea

We’ve written numerous blog posts about Eastie and featured it in our post-pandemic Whitepaper. You can read them and soak up the statistics and program descriptions. Or you can scroll back up to the top and just repeat after me: Whatever Phil wants.

Gary Kaplan is the executive director of JFYNetworks.

Header image source: East Boston High School | 2023 School on the Move Winner (East Boston) EdVestors (video still)

Other posts authored by Gary can be found here.

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