A recent report from the Rockefeller Institute of Government paints a grim picture of school turnaround efforts nationwide, noting that most have failed. At Brighton High School, part of Boston Public Schools in Brighton, MA, we’re bucking that trend. Since 2016, when Brighton High School fell into “Level 4” status—a state designation that requires the district to implement a turnaround strategy—it has made changes to improve student engagement and academics, and we are seeing results. A key component of the turnaround strategy at Brighton High School was the switch to the use of project-based learning (PBL)—which has proven effective, especially for students furthest from opportunity. See how the method has helped us reengage teachers and students and ignite true change at our school, putting us on the path to success.

Personalization and Relevance for a Diverse Student Body

Brighton High School is a diverse, 600-student, open-enrollment high school serving students from almost every neighborhood in Boston, as well as students who have moved here from all over the world. Fifty-four percent of our students are English-language learners—first languages include Haitian Creole, Arabic, Spanish, and Portuguese—and we also have a large special education population, with 20–25 percent of students having an IEP. In the years leading up to our Level 4 designation, Brighton High School struggled academically, and 76 percent of the student body was considered chronically absent.

In Massachusetts, to be named Level 4, a school must be in the lowest 10 percent of schools in the same grade span statewide. The school must also have test scores that show low performance in English language arts, math, and science, as well as unsatisfactory rates of on-time graduation and dropouts. When a school is designated a turnaround school, there’s a yearlong process during which the school and community draft a turnaround plan. Because there are so many success stories about PBL—particularly around its ability to engage students and make school more relevant for them—we selected this as our turnaround strategy. At Brighton High School, we really bought into the relevance piece. We had many students who didn’t “see” themselves in high school, college, or certain types of careers, so it made it hard for them to engage and care about what they were learning. It also made it hard for teachers to help them see the connections between what they were learning in one class and what they were learning in other classes. PBL felt like the right fit.

We recognized the rich diversity of our student body and that no two of our students learn and engage in the same way. PBL aligned with our need to personalize learning for each individual’s needs. It can be scaffolded to meet individual students’ learning levels, and students work together in teams so they learn and grow from each other. It also provides opportunities to incorporate students’ cultures into the projects, making it a culturally relevant model that improves engagement and learning.

In addition to relevance and personalization, PBL also teaches students 21st-century success skills, such as presenting and speaking with people in the community who are connected with the project. Students learn to conduct research about the topic or problem they are trying to solve. We felt these qualities of the model were important.

Why PBL?

PBL is a teaching method through which students learn by actively engaging in real-world and personally meaningful projects, according to the nonprofit PBLWorks, with whom we partnered for professional development. Students work on a project over an extended period of time—from one week up to an entire semester—that engages them in solving a real-world problem or answering a complex question. They demonstrate their knowledge and skills by creating a public product or presentation for a real audience. As a result, PBLWorks notes, “Students develop deep content knowledge as well as critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication skills. PBL unleashes a contagious, creative energy among students and teachers.”

[PBL] also provides opportunities to incorporate students’ cultures into the projects, making it a culturally relevant model that improves engagement and learning.

There’s been a lot written about what kinds of communities traditionally have access to these types of engaging, project-based experiences that promote critical thinking. Often it tends to happen in more affluent communities, whereas schools in lower-income and urban communities may offer more worksheets and monotonous tasks. We didn’t want to fall into that category. We knew our students deserved engaging work too, and we felt it was an issue of equity and access to provide our students with rich PBL experiences.

Boston Public Schools’ former superintendent was a big proponent of PBL, having worked with ConnectED and PBLWorks in the past, so he supported the model. In 2017, the district created a “theory of action” as part of its turnaround strategy for Brighton High School, including a focus on PBL.

Implementation, Training, and Planning

I came to Brighton High School in 2017 to finalize the turnaround plan. This included surveying students and doing focus groups about what they wanted from their school, hiring new staff, and putting everyone through training provided by PBLWorks so everyone would be able to immediately begin using the PBL model.

For the first two years, our school learned the process. During that time, teachers designed and implemented one project in their own classroom in the fall semester. In the spring semester, they worked in teams to do a cross-curricular project. Now that most of the staff has returned and is trained, we have moved to two cross-curricular projects a year. We map out the process on a schoolwide level and give teachers time for professional development and to work in interdisciplinary teams.

By increasing the number of projects, we’ve seen our teachers and students grow in the PBL process. Teachers are getting more comfortable teaching with the PBL model, and students are getting more used to group work and presenting. We’re glad we took that leap of faith.

Reflecting on Results

Before we launched our turnaround plan, 76 percent of the student body was considered chronically absent—which is defined as missing 10 percent or more (18 plus days) of the school year. That percentage dropped to 61 percent in just the first year and 57 percent the next year. That’s a great indicator of general engagement in the school.

On top of that, I regularly witness and hear anecdote after anecdote from teachers, students, and parents about the difference PBL has made. Students are more connected and engaged and are building confidence in their abilities to tackle challenges and speak in front of their peers. They’re also learning in a deeper way and at a faster pace, which is additional proof that this initiative is succeeding.

Moving Forward

We’ve learned a lot during this turnaround process. For any school principal considering adopting a PBL model—whether it’s as part of a formal turnaround plan or not—consider these helpful tips.

Trust and engage in the process. It’s important for you as the school leader to help your team engage in the PBL process. This may take a while. In our first year, PBL felt more like a traditional end-of-year project. But today, everyone has a better sense of what it means to have PBL as the “main course” rather than the dessert—in other words, keeping it as the main focus to help teach the material rather than as an add-on. We could have given up and said, “No way, teachers are resisting; it’s not going to work.” But in reality, our teachers wanted to do PBL; they just didn’t know how to do it yet on a larger scale. Taking the time to let the process work is very important. Sometimes educators might be afraid to give students the kind of responsibility that PBL requires. They may feel students aren’t ready for it and need to develop the necessary skills before they engage in PBL. But we felt we had to trust our students, and although they might struggle initially, it would help them develop those skills through the process rather than having them develop those skills as a prerequisite.

Build in time for PBL training and find a good training partner. Like anything else, you build buy-in for PBL through the training process. The time on your professional development calendar needs to be very deliberate in order to build that buy-in. If teachers don’t understand how to teach the PBL model, they’ll feel stressed. But when they get time to train, they get excited about it. We partnered with the nonprofit PBLWorks for our training. All teachers go through summer PBL 101 sessions to learn about PBLWorks’ Gold Standard PBL model and to map out their first projects. PBLWorks trainers are also on-site at several points during the school year for additional professional development and support. We also have an instructional coach who leads two-hour after-school PBL professional development sessions on Wednesdays. We made great efforts to ensure our lead teachers understood what PBL was and how it worked. Our teachers are divided into clusters, each with a lead teacher to help facilitate PBL.

Make sure your school is also supporting students’ social-emotional needs. Students come into school with varying degrees of trauma. As the principal, you have to make sure those issues are being addressed in order to set students up for success with PBL. Brighton High School did this by increasing our social-​emotional learning staff dramatically. We now have three full-time school psychologists and a full-time social worker—far above what most schools have. Our school psychologists lead support groups, provide one-on-one counseling, and oversee the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and student support teams. Addressing students’ social-emotional learning needs helps them to focus on academics and the projects at hand.

Consider implementing an advisory. Advisories are small group meetings led by an adult where students address various issues impacting them and their school. This allows students to practice communication and listening skills and helps build community. It’s a flexible time period that allows for whatever is needed at the time. For example, it can also be used as an opportunity for peer mentoring or for college representatives to come to the school. It’s a good way to end the day and will help improve student engagement.

PBL is helping our students gain the skills they need for success beyond the classroom, as well as gain confidence in their ability to complete challenging tasks. The PBL model has brought new energy to our school and has helped us turn things around.

Robert Rametti is the former headmaster at Brighton High School in Boston. He is currently the principal at WB Cooley High School at Juanita Sanchez Education Complex in the Providence Public Schools.

Sidebar: Brighton High School Projects

Today at Brighton High School outside Boston, students in all grades have opportunities to engage in at least two projects a year. Examine these few examples of the types of projects we’ve done:

  • A 10th-grade project focused on food equity and food deserts. Students were asked to answer the driving question: “Does your environment and community include access to healthy food and how does this access become a human rights issue? Does your environment negatively impact your access to healthy food?” Students had to do research and conduct interviews. Then they created a podcast exposing this issue and offering recommendations for how to move forward. The project showcase was done in a talk show format. Students had to write a script and use multiple sources of evidence.
  • A project for the ESL2 students involved them creating a multimedia “exhibit” of their lives by producing videos in which they described what the American Dream means to them. Many of our students are new to school and new to the country. Many are refugees who have very limited English and who have been through harrowing experiences. To hear them speaking so eloquently about their journeys and have them record one another and use visuals was emotionally powerful and honored our students’ identities. It also showcased how much English they had learned. Several visitors to the showcase were especially touched by students’ stories and walked away crying.
  • In a ninth-grade cross-curricular project, students were asked to redesign an outdoor space for one of the historic attractions in our neighborhood—the naval vessel USS Constitution—to help attract more visitors. It’s an amazing piece of history, yet very few families here have ever set foot in the museum. In math class, students did surveys on what the community wanted out of the attraction. In history class, students learned the history of the USS Constitution. In English class, they wrote up their rationales and proposals, and in visual arts class, they did the design portion of the project. The project began with a field trip to the museum, where students met with museum staff and the architect. Then students brainstormed and developed their ideas. The project culminated with a school-based ninth-grade fair, during which students presented their proposals to teachers and administrators. The top-scoring students got to go back to the USS Constitution and present their proposals to the board. This built the students’ confidence.

As students are put into authentic scenarios in all of these projects, they get more and more comfortable doing the work. That’s the power of PBL. It fosters more in-depth knowledge of the content and teaches students how to be articulate and confident speakers and thinkers.