Number Nine Is Nice, But Being Bedford High Is Better: An Open Letter to Boston Magazine

September 20, 2016

Submitted by Superintendent Jon Sills, Bedford School Department

Bedford Schools LogoLast month’s edition of Boston Magazine ranked Bedford High School number 9 out of 155 public high schools in Greater Boston.  While the quantitative measures paint only a partial picture of what makes Bedford High School an excellent school, we are proud to be recognized as a top tier school.

Boston Magazine uses a formula whose weighting is unclear, but that takes into account average class size, student/teacher ratio, MCAS scores, SAT scores, AP scores, number of counselors, number of varsity sports teams, graduation rate and college attendance rate.  What these rankings fail to capture is the true uniqueness of Bedford High School, beginning with the many students whose thoughtfulness and generosity of spirit inspire the work of its caring adults.  Drawing on the three communities of Bedford, Hanscom Air Force Base and Boston, our students are exposed to a more real world experience than most small suburbs make possible.  And the statistics, which fail to express the wonderful richness of our curricular offerings or the creativity and commitment of our faculty and staff, also miss important distinctions between Bedford and its comparison communities.

What Makes Bedford High School So Special? A Few Examples Follow

Few high schools our size have:

  • multiple robotics and computer programming courses, a robust range of art and music       offerings, and sports offerings that engage 65% of the student body, or
  • teachers who, in order to enable students to have such choices, voluntarily teach two or three different courses during the same class period.

Few Massachusetts high schools have:

  •  students who reach the final round of the National History Day competition in Washington, DC 11 out of the last 11 years, or
  • science teachers who volunteer annually to hold Bedford’s Women in Science Competition that attracts teams from as far away as Pennsylvania; or over 60 faculty, staff, alumni and community volunteers who facilitate Bedford’s annual Tenacity Challenge, an academic scholarship competition for African-American and Latino from urban and suburban schools from across the Commonwealth

Few schools in our area can boast that:

  • their students won the first place prize, nationally, for Relay for Life, a major charitable and organizational accomplishment carried off almost completely by students, or
  • 23 of our high school teachers have created and will voluntarily teach a year-long social justice program that all freshmen will participate in and that upperclassmen will help to facilitate.

At BHS, teachers of all subjects deliberately plan their lessons to promote the development of analytical thinking, creative problem solving, and the ability to use or transfer what is learned- all as central components of their courses, and all students are challenged to meet rigorous common learning expectations.  Each and every ninth grade student, for example, completes an extensive I-Search research project that incorporates a major metacognitive component.  This year, 99 of our 206 seniors are taking Calculus, with 62 of them taking AP.  At the same time, we choose not to offer AP US History or Literature, because we strongly believe that our own high honors offerings in those subjects are deeper and more compelling. Our students are offered: Latin courses; a JROTC program; school trips to Morocco, the Dominican Republic, the rainforest of Belize, and Cuba as well as more traditional destinations like Italy, France and Spain; and a wonderful range of service, academic competition and performing arts-focused extra-curricular activities, including the annual musical that this year involved 109 students.

Our counseling and student support services proactively address the increasingly complex needs of our complex student body.  Learning centers, creatively designed in-house special education programs, a Lighthouse Program for students with concussions or who are returning from hospitalization, and a Skills Center that serves over 100 regular education students, help us address the unique learning needs of our students.

Which Brings Us Back to the Numbers

Something that makes us particularly proud is our record of outstanding achievement with a much more complex student body than most of our comparison districts can claim.  The sources of this complexity- Hanscom Air Force Base, our METCO program, and the town’s own relatively high percentage of low income, English language learner, and racially diverse residents- make Bedford High School a very special place.  At the same time, this complexity presents our educators with a greater range of challenges than the more homogeneous populations of most small suburban communities present.   Our 99% to 100% advanced and proficient ELA scores and 90% to 95% math scores of the past five years stand out in light of these unique challenges, not the least of which is the significantly higher rate of transitory students that our relationship with HAFB produces.

None of the eight high schools that ranked higher than Bedford High have 15% of their students coming and going often within one or two years.  Bedford High’s DESE-identified “Churn” rate of 8.4% contrasts sharply with the other top 8 districts’ 1.7% to 4.2%.  Bedford High’s “Economically Disadvantaged” 8.3% last year exceeds all of the other districts, except for Newton South, by between 2.5% and 4.5%, and only three of the other eight districts have more students with identified learning disabilities.

Misleading Data

As well-resourced as we are, thanks to our school committee’s efforts and our community’s wonderful commitment to education, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the high school’s average class size figure in the Boston Magazine report is highly misleading.  Boston Magazine has us well below the average for our comparison districts, and while our averages are very good, they are much closer to the norm than reported.   Our large number of small sections of academic support classes, to which we owe no small measure of our high levels of achievement, are counted by the DESE in its class size average calculations.  Therefore, whereas Wayland records 389 classes for a similarly sized student body (840 compared to our 904), we are listed as having 562 classes, which dramatically skews the real class size average of our regular academic courses.  Also, in the many instances where our teachers combine two academic levels within the same class, for example Honors Psychology and High Honors Psychology, each of those two groups is counted in the DESE calculation as a separate (and therefore much smaller) class, which significantly impacts the class size average.

MCAS results are an important indicator of certain aspects of our high school students’ achievement, particularly with regard to our subgroups’ performance, but as is clear from the above examples, they tell only a small portion of the story.  The rankings, therefore, while a nice feather in the cap, are an untrustworthy reflection of why Bedford High is truly a top tier school.  Whether we rank 9th or 5th, as we did last year, or 15th, as is certainly possible in the future, we will continue to be a school that is constantly striving to improve, to meet the needs of each and every one of its students, and to inspire them to work hard, to grow intellectually, and to be responsible, caring and contributing members of our ever shrinking world.

Jon Sills

Superintendent, Bedford Public Schools


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Suzanne Johnson
September 22, 2022 8:39 am

And don’t forget the rich experience of the LABBB students’ integration into the high school community, which is likely not factored into any ranking calculations.

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