Dr. Zac: Infusing Literacy Across Curriculum Is Key

Sue  Szachowicz 
 Sue Szachowicz is principal of Brockton High
 School near Boston.
by Dahlia Peterson

When told her schoolwide approach to student literacy was cookie cutter in nature, Sue Szachowicz, principal of Brockton High School in the Boston suburbs, begged to differ.

“When you use a cookie cutter in making cookies, don’t your cookies come out better?” she asked during her hour-long Thought Leader session on Saturday at AASA’s national conference in Los Angeles.

Growing up in Massachusetts and attending Brockton High, Szachowicz, endearingly known as “Dr. Zac,” has been well acquainted with the challenges posed by this sprawling urban high school of more than 2,400 students. Ever since taking the helm first as assistant principal then as principal by 2004, she has led a school where 14 percent of students are learning English as a second language and 75 percent of the students fail to earn a diploma.

The results in standardized testing such as Massachusetts’s MCAS were painful to swallow.

On Dec. 8, 1999, Brockton High made it to the Boston Globe as one of the worst-performing schools in Massachusetts.

In 2000, the MCAS English language arts failure rate was at 41 percent. The failure rate for math was even more dismal at a soaring 62 percent. But by the very next year, the failure rate for both subjects had been axed in half. ELA had dropped to 23 percent and math had dropped to 34 percent.

Was it a guardian angel that had finally come to rescue this floundering high school?

The answer actually lies in the spread of literacy across the board  in every subject ranging from music to physical education.

Szachowicz began with empowering teachers. Previously, a deeply ingrained culture of low expectations headed by "students have a right to fail" had plagued the school for more than a decade. Teachers and students alike were in denial mediocrity could no longer be an option.

The turnaround began with the implementation of literacy for all, with no exceptions, and schoolwide rubrics for assessment. Afterward, Szachowicz says she “monitored like crazy” to ensure the new policies were taken seriously.

Literacy was executed through four chief ways — reading, writing, speaking and reasoning. To ensure students would be able to learn, Szachowicz began with literacy textbooks to teach the teachers. Only when teachers fully understood the concept from the ground up would students be able to improve, Szachowicz said.

With reinvented teachers and students applying their thinking through writing and visuals based upon the Open Response Calendar, which included social science, business and subjects taught bilingually, students were finally able to be set on the right track.

“Writing is thinking. It’s easy to succeed if you stick,” Szachowicz said.

The results are the clearest indicator of success. In 2012, the English language arts failure rate had dropped to 1.9 percent and Brockton High School had become one of the top-performing schools in the nation.

Szachowicz puts it eloquently: “Making change takes tenacity, not brilliance.”

(Dahlia Peterson, a junior at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, is an intern with AASA’s Conference Daily Online.)

Access the presenter's PowerPoint slide show on AASA's Conference Daily Online.