HispanicWritersWeek

“In this country, if a student who only speaks Spanish walks into a public school, he is looked at as deficient,” said Marjorie Soto.

But not at Hurley School, where Soto has been principal for 11 years, relentlessly building this small dual language school into something special.

“I was an English-language learner myself, and it wasn’t a good experience,” said Soto. “I got into this business to make an impact on that particular community.”

 “I got into this business to make an impact on that particular community.” – Marjorie Soto, Principal
At Hurley, students first learn to read and write in their native language. For roughly half the students, that is Spanish. And yet the school outpaces the average for elementary schools in Massachusetts – the state with the highest test scores in the country – on the state’s math and English tests.

It wasn’t always this way. When Soto first joined the school, it was a place that was “okay with kids not getting the kind of education that they deserved,” said Soto.

Soto had a background as a middle school teacher and principal. Early literacy—the province of elementary schools—was entirely new to her. But she knew right away that it was an area where Hurley needed to improve.

She prompted every teacher in the school to start tracking the hours they spent teaching key reading skills. They zeroed in on a few skills that seemed to be the biggest obstacle for most students. They devoted more time to vocabulary. To help students better hear the words as they read, they pieced together phone-shaped PVC pipe contraptions, so that students could talk into one end and hear themselves out the other.

Scores shot up. But Soto and her staff did not stop there. They hired four part-time staff members to focus specifically on students with the greatest needs. These “interventionists” work with students in three cycles over the course of the year.

By third grade, nearly all students are up to speed in their native language. Some have still not fully grasped their second language. Nearly all of these, Soto said, are native English speakers for whom Spanish is the second language. So in third, fourth and fifth grade, these are the students who become the center of the interventionists’ attention.

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Data for 2014-15 school year. Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE). School/District Profiles. Accessed 11.06.15. http://profiles.doe.mass.edu

If there’s one thing that allows Hurley to stand apart, Soto believes it’s their ability to focus. The school is constantly refining its practice, looking at one, two or at most three key areas for improvement. Over the years, this has turned Hurley into an outstanding school, attracting top teachers who are devoted to its vision, and earning the praise of parents.

“[Hurley staff] never rest,” said Rebecca Carey, the mother of Hurley third and sixth graders. Carey sent her daughters to Hurley thinking it would be helpful for them to pick up some Spanish.

Her daughter Sadie, who is in sixth grade, is now fully bilingual. “She does laps around my high school Spanish now,” said Carey.

First-grader Cristina Olmos, on the other hand, comes from a Spanish-speaking home. Her father, Luis Olmos, was afraid she would lose the language unless she learned to read and write it in school. When he heard about Hurley, he jumped at a chance to take a tour.

Because Hurley is available only through a lottery, not everyone is able to attend the school since there is more demand than there are seats. Fortunately for Olmos, this was not the case. “We applied,” said Olmos, “and we got lucky.”

This article is part of our report, “How World-class Schools Deliver for All Students,” which includes our framework outlining six key practices that drive the success of the highest-performing schools. Explore the report to read more school profiles showing what these practices look like in action.