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The making of a top-choice school

Parents, teachers and leadership build success at the Hurley
South End News
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Kate Vander Wiede
Hurley second graders (Source:Kate Vander Wiede)

Their kids were three, maybe four, and their parents were getting nervous. Where would their children go to school? Would their peers live in the neighborhood? Would they have to leave the city to get out of the lottery system? It was 2002, and while goofing around on playgrounds, a group of South End parents began to think about how they could stay in the South End and provide their children with a top-notch, neighborhood-school education.

The solution they came up with was simple, but, as we now know, brilliant: find an under-enrolled school, sign their children up (and make sure their children’s friends are signed up as well), and in doing so create a neighborhood school they could shape into their own.

The school they chose for their plan? The Joseph J. Hurley.

“At the time the Hurley School was under-enrolled, so whoever put it down as their first choice would have gotten in,” explained Hurley School parent Beth Schmieta, who was there when the plan was hatched. “It was a hand-holding thing. A ‘let’s all do this together’ thing.”

Schmieta and a dozen of other South End families joined together, promising each other they would choose Hurley as their first choice when the time came. In the meantime, they set to work to make the Hurley a place they would want to send their kids; the first step was creating Neighborhood Parents for the Hurley School group.

In the nine years since the original group of South End parents took a leap of faith, created the NPHS and reinvigorated the school’s parent group, Padres, the Hurley school has grown in popularity and success.

The school now boasts a waiting list. Where 22 parents listed the Hurley as their first choice for grade K2 in 2003, 54 listed it as the first choice in 2011-an almost 250 percent increase. In the Boston Public School’s 2010–2011 School Climate study, 69 percent of Hurley School parents strongly agreed that the Hurley was a “good place for my children to learn,” compared to 55 percent in K8 schools and 51 percent throughout the district. On their most recent MCAS, average math scores increased eight percentage points, landing Hurley as number nine out of 32 K–8 schools in the district. In English Language Arts, Hurley came in as number 18. Seventy-three percent of Hurley’s students are now proficient or above in English and Mathematics.

Much more than test scores and waiting lists have changed. A vibrant soccer field has taken the place of a parking lot. An afterschool program provides students choices like painting, cooking, newspaper club and basketball. Students attend music and theatre classes. A library offers a host of English and Spanish books. A successful middle school program is growing. And the school is currently in its last year of bilingual and monolingual education programs; come 2012–2013, the school will be fully bilingual in Spanish and English. A host of fundraisers — from Tropicaliente to Family Movie Nights — ensure a steady stream of money. Principal Marjorie Soto was chosen by the district and parents in 2004.

In short, things have been looking for up for the Hurley School, but it wasn’t always smooth sailing. In the beginning, it was nerve-wracking.

“There was this sort of feeling that it was a risk: Am I crazy? Am I risking my kid’s education?” Sevier recalled.

Added Schmieta, “I think people were afraid to put their kids in and be the only family that they knew, to not have any friends there or acquaintances. It’s hard enough to send your kids to school—you’re kids are growing up and they turn five and suddenly they have to go to kindergarten and that’s hard even in the best school situation.”

NPHS has been working to create that “best school” — helping teachers with supplies, creating programming and funding Padres. The fundraising group has worked hand-in-hand with principal Soto and Padres, the parent group which was revived in 2007, to decide what is most important to the new school. In the past, NPHS has funded art installations, conflict resolution classes, professional development for teachers, partnerships with the New England Conservatory, Playworks and Earthworks, and vocal and instrumental instruction, to name a few.

Soto, meanwhile, has set out to transform the school from partly bilingual to fully bilingual, and find a team of teachers she believed in.

“I’ve done it classroom by classroom, grade by grade, year by year,” said Soto of her search for teachers. “It’s taken me this long to have, really and truly, an amazing staff who you say ’The kids need this,’ and they are there to make changes, to adapt, to talk to parents, to do whatever it takes to make sure we have an impact on the lives of these children, even beyond the school walls.”

Talk with Soto for a few minutes and it is clear the words Sevier and Schmieta use to describe her — passionate, tenacious, a visionary — are all true. Add to that caring, kind, and full of humor, and you have a leader that teachers look up to, parents drool over, and kids love. In turn, Soto has a kind word to say about all of her staff.

Edwin? He’s a teacher’s assistant—“one of the best people I’ve ever met.” Ms. Colon? It’s her fifth year here, and “she’s really turned out to be an amazing teacher—the parents love her!” The theatre arts teacher? “One of my best finds!”

“We are just beginning to take off,” Soto said. “All the pieces are in place… All of our grade levels, all are so important to the kids. They are just all coming into their own.”

Soto came to the United States at 12, after an all-Spanish education in Puerto Rico. Though her teachers doubted her throughout grade school, Soto attended an Ivy League school for Theatre Arts. After graduating, she taught mathematics and ESL, and then television production at a dual-language middle school. After a stint in management working with principals on professional development, Soto became a principal in Providence, Rhode Island at the International High School before finally being chosen to lead the Hurley.

The challenges facing Padres, NPHS and Soto, since her arrival, have been plentiful.

A much publicized disagreement between the neighborhood association Hurley Blocks, NPHS and the Hurley School concerning a plan to replace a parking lot with a soccer field fired up the neighborhood, though all parties note that no hard feelings linger and communication is much better these days.

Then there are the funding cuts. This year, under BPS’s new way of funding schools — by child instead of by program — the Hurley School saw a $300,000 cut in funds. NPHS was there to help fill the gap and Soto, along with the other bilingual schools in Boston, are negotiating for more funds next year.

NPHS and Padres will soon be facing their next challenge: transitioning to new leadership. Schmieta and Sevier’s children are growing up and soon both parents will be passing on the reigns to the next generation of leaders. Those leaders will have to decide how to structure Padres and NPHS, what programs should stay for the future, what the school needs to stay viable.”

“I’m not worried about [giving the reigns to someone else],” Schmieta said. “I don’t think the school will go back to what it was. I think it will continue to thrive and be a successful school.”

As those leaders take the reigns, a mutual respect between the teachers, parents and leadership propels the school forward, making it what it once wasn’t — a school of choice.

“Given all the school closings and the competition that there is today in education, public schools are not automatically first choice,” Soto said. “So we have to be great. Period. We have to compete. And at this school I feel we can compete with private, parochial, charters—bring it. We’re doing something you’re not doing and we’re seeing the results.”

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