Meet the new boss: Stephen Zrike
Fresh face will take over at the Blackstone School July 1
Because of serially low MCAS scores, the South End’s William Blackstone Elementary was named as one of 14 "turnaround" schools in the Boston Public Schools (BPS) system last winter. It received a "fresh start" designation in March, an option put forth in November by Superintendent Dr. Carol Johnson. As part of that scenario, half of the school’s staff and its principal of 12 years, Mildred Ruiz-Allen, will be replaced.
Taking over July 1 will be the soon-to-be 34-year-old Stephen Zrike, who says that outreach from the community and Ruiz-Allen has been exceptional thus far.
"I’ve been very pleased so far, certainly I’m juggling two jobs right now, but I try to get over there as much as I can," he said. "The current principal has been very supportive, and been very gracious in working with me."
"A lot of folks have e-mailed me before I’ve had the chance to reach out, which really says something about the community," he added.
Zrike started off as a fifth-grade teacher for four years in Andover before enrolling in an urban superintendents leadership program at the Harvard University School of Education. As part of the program, he interned in Spokane, Washington, and then returned to the Boston area to take over as principal at the Philbrick Elementary School in Roslindale for three years. Next, he served as principal at the Ohrenberger Elementary School in West Roxbury - a school he says is very similar to the Blackstone in terms of demographics, size, and programming - for two years before leaving in order to finish his dissertation.
This past year, while finishing up his degree work, he also served as a data inquiry coach for BPS, working with four schools coaching teachers and principals to look at data collected on their students and "adjusting and planning their instruction off of their student data."
The Norfolk, Mass., native currently lives in Charlestown and speaks Spanish - more or less a requirement at the Blackstone, thanks to growing up with Cuban mother.
"I understand everything," he explained. "I grew up where my mother spoke to me in Spanish and I responded in English, so working at the Blackstone it’s important. My mother’s very excited that I’ll have a chance to practice my Spanish."
Since being selected for the job earlier this year, Zrike has done his best to acclimate himself to the area, enlisting the help of community members and his sister, Sara Zrike, who teaches at the Hurley School on Worcester Street.
"I was only casually familiar with the school and the area and I didn’t have a lot of experience directly with the Blackstone [before taking the job], but when the opportunity was presented to me I certainly did some research on the school and got some background information and I was really excited about what I was reading," he said. "I talked to some people that live in the South End who were dealing with the school district - residents of the South End that I knew - and the more I talked to them the more excited I got about the potential for that school. Even though it’s been labeled a turnaround school, I just think it’s got such great, great potential given all the support that’s already there but also the willingness of folks right there in the community."
Zrike repeatedly used words such as "unique" and "excited" when talking about the Blackstone and the opportunity to improve the school’s student achievement.
"I’m really excited to be part of this work, because I think it’s sort of not Boston’s work, it’s the nation’s work, trying to figure out what to do with chronically underperforming schools," he said. "The way I put it is the school’s stuck, and I really wanted to be on the front end of that. I think Boston has a chance to be one of the leaders nationally in trying to figure that out."
He originally wasn’t sure he wanted to return to the role of principal after he graduates in May from Harvard, but the chance to work at the Blackstone convinced him to return to the post.
Zrike says utilizing neighborhood partnerships will be a staple of his leadership, and he hopes to improve the school’s MCAS numbers quickly. He plans to work with partners such as St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, the YMCA, the Blackstone Community Center, Ellis Memorial, and many others.
"I think a lot can happen quickly [at the Blackstone]," he said. "Part of it is utilizing our partners that are already there to make sure that they’re better aligned with the work that they’re doing in our classrooms."
He won’t only look to improve low MCAS scores, however.
"There are some children that are very successful at the Blackstone now, we just need to make sure that all our students, regardless of what their background is or what program they’re in, are successful and are able to translate the success of the kids that are making it in the school to those children that had been struggling," he explained.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the school and its new principal is filling out the staff for next fall. After all, half of the staff will be new to the Blackstone. In order to find quick success, Zrike will aim to build a balanced, integrated staff.
"All the research will show that the most successful schools are the ones that have a range of teacher experiences, especially around different types of programs that are successful with different populations of kids," he said.
Currently Zrike and a "local stakeholder team" are working on putting a plan in place for this summer and beyond. The group will make a series of recommendations on grant proposals and new programming to the superintendent on May 10, which she can accept or modify; the superintendent later brings her own plan with individual recommendations for each turnaround school to the state for its approval.
Zrike has thus far met with all the staff, visited classrooms, and reviewed student data. Teach Plus, an organization that aids in hiring in urban schools, will help him fill out the lengthy list of new staff members he must finish this summer, help he called "critical" because Teach Plus has "funding and resources to market and attract candidates from all over."
Not surprising given his most recent job, he’ll utilize statistical analysis in his efforts to reshape the school.
"If [students are] struggling we need to have support in place right away," he said. "Identify them and then give them the extra remediation and support they need - and also the kids that need an extra challenge. We’ve got to have data to really track kids, not just at the beginning and the end of the year, but rather also throughout the year.
"We can’t wait until the MCAS ... we’ve got to know well in advance of that time how our students are performing."
Long term Zrike has an impressive goal that should play like sweet music in the ears of South Enders. He wants the Blackstone to not only be a first-choice school among families in Boston, but to act as a leader in a larger movement.
"I’d like the Blackstone to be a leader not only in the city," he said, "but in the other cities in Massachusetts."