How One Roxbury School is Innovating Instruction by Changing Mindsets

May 2019
By Elise Swinford

The St. Patrick School core values.

When St. Patrick School in Roxbury says that their school is a family, they’re not exaggerating. It’s common for multiple generations of Roxbury families to attend the school, and St. Patrick School teachers often send their own children there. Sr. Barbara, Head of Academic Guidance, recently marked her 47th year at the school. Responding to the needs of the extended school family, St. Patrick’s accepts childcare vouchers, provides free breakfast and lunch, and offers low-cost afterschool care.

Principal Tiffany Sawyer, a second-year principal who also taught early education at St. Patrick’s, is proud of the education the school provides. At the same time, she is committed to continuously improving the quality of instruction through innovative, data-driven approaches. When school leaders from the Boston Compact’s Roxbury Special Education Network—a network of district, Catholic, and charter schools in Roxbury—visited St. Patrick’s, Tiffany asked that her counterparts watch for how and when teachers encourage students to think critically by allowing them to struggle with questions first before teachers offer help. This is a skill that Tiffany has been encouraging and collecting data on, but knows her faculty need more support to fully implement.

Principal Tiffany Sawyer with St. Patrick’s Peter Lynch Scholar nominees this spring.

Though Tiffany leads professional development on this and other instructional goals, she sees implementing instructional change as more of a mindset: “Is everyone understanding what this looks like? Does everyone understand what needs to be done? Just because I say [we should be doing this practice] doesn’t mean it changes immediately…it’s important to have outside feedback and see how other people are innovating,” she explains.

While Tiffany knows that change doesn’t happen overnight, the visit from her Roxbury Network peers was another step toward creating a culture of feedback and growth, she says. Growth mindset is a part of her own leadership as well. After the visit, Tiffany connected with veteran school leader and early education specialist Principal Donette Wilson-Wood of the Haynes Early Education Center (BPS). Over lunch, Donette encouraged Tiffany to seek outside partnerships to support instructional innovations. “There are people who want to help us, but don’t know our story,” Donette reflects on the conversation with Tiffany. Showing funders the special experiences they can provide for students is important, she says, as is creating strong partnerships with other school leaders, like those forming this year in the Compact’s Roxbury Special Education Network.