The staff and students at the Donald McKay School in East Boston were finalists last year for the prestigious EdVestors Thomas W. Payzant School on the Move Prize, but they fell short.
“We were one of the top three finalists last year,” said McKay Principal Jordan Weymer. “When we got chosen again to participate this year we were like, “Nah, we going to pass”. It’s such a grueling process but we came around. We had a great team of teachers that put together the school’s narrative and the application. We really changed the narrative from last year and wanted to tell our story and successes through the eyes of our students, teachers and families.”
In the award’s 13 year history no Eastie school has ever received the $100,000 prize.
However, that all changed last week when the McKay’s name was announced at a morning ceremony at the Boston Harbor Hotel.
Weymer and the McKay’s Director Michael Munroe immediately jumped up, fists pumping in the air and made their way to the stage to accept the award.
“It feels incredible,” said Weymer. “The best thing about it is the support we’ve received from the community and other schools. Our phone hasn’t stopped ringing from people reaching out from other schools to congratulate us. You don’t do this work for the awards you do it to make a difference but this award just confirms the great work the teachers and kids are doing at our school. The students have been so pumped and so excited all week.”
For the past 13 years EdVestors, a school improvement organization in Boston, has awarded its $100,000 Thomas W. Payzant School on the Move Prize to recognize rapidly-improving schools that have made exemplary progress in advancing the academic achievement of all students.
“Great schools like Donald McKay are the beating heart of our city and I applaud the teachers and staff at the school for being awarded this year’s School on the Move Prize,” said Boston Mayor Martin Walsh at the ceremony. “I congratulate all three school finalists for setting an example that by working together, we can improve outcomes for students and ensure they receive a high-quality education.”
The McKay is a K-8 school where 60 percent of students are English Language Learners (EL). The 800-student Donald McKay K-8 has experienced significant growth – climbing steadily from the bottom 6 percent of schools statewide six years ago, to surpassing the district average in literacy and math by empowering teachers as the experts and decision-makers in their classrooms and as leaders of the school. The McKay has focused on building trust among teachers, students and families, and meeting the academic and social emotional needs of its English learners, who make up a majority of the school’s population.
“We call it our ‘choice and voice’ culture, where we encourage schoolwide engagement among students, teachers and families to determine the best path forward in our individual classrooms,” said Weymer. “Our school is a reflection of our community, in population and approach. We remain committed to not only improving grades and outcomes for all students, but also to the social and emotional needs of our families and EL students by maintaining a safe and welcoming school community for all.”
The McKay’s student population is 89 percent Latino, 60 percent of whom are EL students and more than 50 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged. In order to achieve this empowering and inclusive atmosphere for all students, the McKay refers to their EL students as “Emerging Bilinguals” – emphasizing that their first language is an asset rather than a roadblock.
The school also partners with multiple community organizations in the area to provide bilingual counseling to students and families, and keep immigrant families informed on their rights. Students at the McKay take much of the community building efforts into their own hands as well, putting on an annual “Immigrant Pride Week” to inform, advocate for and empower the school’s students and families.
“I’d like to congratulate the Donald McKay on their award today and on the remarkable progress they’ve made in such a short time,” said Interim Superintendent of Boston Public Schools Laura Perille. “All of the finalists – the McKay, the Snowden and the Perry – are all shining examples of the inspiring, yet less publicized, achievements of individual Boston Public Schools to improve educational outcomes for students.”
As for what the money will be used for, Weymer said its up to the students, parents and staff.
“We are going to sit down and have conversations with the students, teachers, parents and get a sense of what they want to see,” said Weymer. “I’m sure the students will want to see some of the money go to technology. So if I had to guess it will be technology, some enrichment programs and some local partnerships to bring people in and run some programs with the students and staff.”
Until the McKay decides what to spend the prize money on, the school will be basking in the glory of the win.
“We are going to let each teacher bring the trophy home for a night…kind of like the Stanley Cup,” said Weymer. “They are really the key to our success and I think as a school culture we put a lot of trust in our staff. I know they can do anything and my role is to make sure they have the tools to do what they want to do to improve education here.”