“Growth is the Expectation”: How one Roxbury School creates a Culture of Achievement for Scholars and Educators

In a K2 classroom organized around learning centers, students work with blocks while another has a snack.

I spoke with Principal Ali Dutson of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Mission Grammar School the day after the announcement was made that her team won a national award for “Innovation in Catholic Education” from the magazine Today’s Catholic Teacher. Though she, rightly, gets a lot of credit for this recognition as the school’s leader, Ali steers the conversation to her teachers. “I’m focused on making my teachers feel proud. Teachers who feel successful are more successful,” she says.

This mantra is part of Ali’s broader vision for Mission Grammar as a school with a culture of achievement for both students—to whom they refer as “scholars”—and teachers. This vision became a priority three years ago when she did an inventory on the school’s culture as a part of her Lynch Academy Fellowship. The resulting action plan involved approaching areas like curriculum, family interactions, and hiring with a culture of achievement in mind. This is a particularly important move towards equity for a school community like Mission Grammar that is 95% students of color—research shows that students of color are often given less challenging instruction than their white peers. To combat this trend, Mission Grammar’s culture of achievement prioritizes a growth mindset among scholars and teachers, the idea that if you believe you (and your students) can achieve something, you (and they) are significantly more likely to achieve it.

Another part of Mission Grammar’s culture of achievement is making feedback a positive part of the teaching experience. The mantra is “I’ll be better tomorrow than I was today,” explains Ali.

Exemplifying differentiated learning, students access curriculum through different activities in Ms. Reynold’s 1st grade classroom.

In this spirit, Ali and the Mission Grammar team joined the Roxbury Special Education Network, an initiative of the Boston Compact that facilitates collaboration among a network of school leaders in Roxbury to improve special education. When these educators visited Mission Grammar, many were impressed by several of the teachers’ use of differentiation in the classroom to support inclusion, and wondered how those teachers could support the rest of the school in improving inclusive practices. Donette Wilson-Wood, Principal of the Haynes Early Ed. Center (BPS), noted that finding ways to provide more male role models who reflect the diversity of the students could help support growth mindset. This idea, Ali says, has pushed her team to think creatively: they are considering a program for the older boys to mentor younger boys and have reached out to another school about the possibility of sharing male mentors.

Ali leads by example by incorporating feedback like she receives from the Network into her leadership style. “The ability to strategize with other sectors has been a game changer for our school,” Ali says of the Network. “Having access to opportunities to grow and collaborate to be better…is really special. It’s part of what our kids deserve as Boston residents.”

by Elise Swinford
June 2019