NEW BEDFORD — At the beginning of the school year, things felt a little overwhelming for some families at Hayden-McFadden Elementary School.
"It was like, 'Oh my God,'" said Yanira Aviles, a mother of three.
So much had changed. School started two weeks early. Children had to be there by 7:45 a.m., half an hour earlier than last year, and the day lasted longer, until 3:45 p.m.
"At the beginning, it was kind of crazy," said another mom, Alicia Tillson.
But the changes were about far more than scheduling. In a neighborhood beset by poverty and social problems, HayMac embarked last fall on an ambitious reform agenda, guided by a locally written plan approved by the state education department.
A ground-shifting 70 percent of teachers were new, as was the high-energy principal, Tammy Morgan.
Parents say more communication from the school and a welcoming attitude have been hallmarks of the new way of life at Hayden-McFadden. Some of the changes are visible from the outside: information sent home, evening events, more after-school activities, a supper club to help feed students in the late afternoon, and the much-heralded replacement windows, which made it possible to see the outside world from inside the school.
In recent years, parents would get perhaps three notices all year, Tillson said. Also new this year was the relocation of some of the main-office staff from behind a glass wall into an underused area of the lobby.
"It's more inviting," Tillson said.
Aviles agreed. "All those little things like that, they can make a big difference," she said.
Other changes are less visible. What parents don't directly see, and in some cases have little awareness of, are the reforms inside the classroom.
The entire staff had to reapply for their jobs. For teachers, that meant giving a sample lesson and convincing the new leadership they had the necessary skills and passion, and also that they were willing to get on board with a new school culture, a longer day, and 10 additional school days.
Students take computerized tests every four to five weeks that automatically adjust to their level, so teachers can see how much each student has learned. With data in hand, teachers tailor future lessons to fill in the gaps.
The changes were possible, and necessary, because Hayden-McFadden is executing what the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education calls a "turnaround" plan for low-performing schools. In a move school officials say is unusual, the school has been allowed to attempt a second turnaround plan, under a new superintendent and principal, rather than go into state receivership.
The stakes are feverishly high. On state tests, Hayden-McFadden ranks in the bottom 1 percent of all Massachusetts elementary schools.
Most HayMac students need a leg up. The state considers 9 out of 10 “high needs,” a composite measure of economic disadvantage, lack of English proficiency, and disabilities. More than one in four students has a disability — one of the highest rates in the district. More than half of students are not native English speakers.
The Standard-Times interviewed three mothers selected by the school — Tillson, Aviles, and LaToya Jones-Cuba — but also spoke with parents at an intramural basketball game to get unvarnished views of how things are going.
When Tillson first moved from Woonsocket to New Bedford two years ago, she said, her in-laws told her Hayden-McFadden was the worst school in the system. She was concerned about the school's reputation, but she felt confident that her children's behavior wouldn't suffer.
"I've never really had an issue with the school, but I've always had model students, so that's a little different for me," she said.
Tillson said school breakfast changed this year in a way that seems to work well. Staff started serving breakfast in the classroom during school hours, instead of in the cafeteria before school. She said when kids finish breakfast, everyone is settled and ready to learn, rather than streaming into the classroom feeling antsy from waiting in the cafeteria.
"I think that makes a huge difference, too," she said.
The school also has a bell system to mark transitions during the day.
"I really feel like, 'OK, wow, it really is "no child left behind." They really know where each child is, where they need to go,'" Tillson said.
Tillson has three children in the school system: daughters at New Bedford High School and Normandin Middle School, and a son, Roko Tillson, who is finishing fifth grade at Hayden-McFadden.
Asked what changes he sees, Roko is quick to bring up the new windows. Hayden-McFadden was one of four elementaries in the city to get new windows this year, replacing old ones that had become so clouded, some were totally opaque. Now students at lunch can look out a wall of clear, floor-to-ceiling windows at trees and the school's vegetable garden — a far cry from the previous effect, which Roko said was "creepy" at night.
"When it was nighttime, it looked an insane asylum," he said.
He said that as a whole, the school feels more supportive than last year. He enjoys math and wrestling, which is a school-sponsored activity. The school also offers basketball, cheerleading, and gardening. The wrestling team has traveled to tournaments around the region.
Roko said the coach tells the young wrestlers that if someone gets in trouble at school, it affects the whole team.
Another change children mentioned — though it is not yet installed — is a new playground, purchased by the City of New Bedford with federal Community Development Block Grant money.
Jaeden Cuba, a third-grader, said he is looking forward to the playground and is enjoying the school's new chairs, windows, and doors. He also likes the oversized inspirational words painted on the interior walls earlier this year — words like "honesty" and "pride."
"It encouraged me to do the right thing, like 'dream,' 'imagine,' 'pride,' 'laugh.' ... It encourages people," he said.
His mother, LaToya Jones-Cuba, said things have changed a lot. Two years ago, it seemed like if a parent complained about a behavioral problem, nothing would get done, she said. This year, if she reached out to the school administration, "things would get done. They would find a solution."
At one point, when Jaeden was showing some behavior problems himself, "I was at a point where I didn't know what to do," she said. She and the school worked together to deal with it. Jaeden was tested for attention deficit disorder, diagnosed, and treated.
"So basically, they never gave up on my kid," she said.
Jones-Cuba said that ever since that time, Hayden-McFadden has been a very positive experience for her family. She supports the longer school day and has no complaints for the time being, she said.
"Scores are going to change, but it's going to take time," she said.
In addition to Jaeden, she has two daughters, ages 19 and 5. The 19-year-old is a student at Bristol Community College.
Jones-Cuba said that although scores are important, kids need passionate teachers.
"It all depends on the staff, which comes down to recruiting," she said.
Similarly, families interviewed at the basketball game had no major complaints about this year at Hayden-McFadden. But some parents showed little awareness of the school's attempt to revolutionize itself.
Asked what he thought of the longer day, dad Shane Pruneau said, "Longer for what reason, I don't know." He has two sons in the school, and they like it, he said.
Mom Lisa Depina, who was watching her 10-year-old daughter cheer with the brand-new cheerleading team, also said she wasn't very familiar with some of the changes. But her daughter loves cheerleading.
"She's so happy," Depina said.
Another mom, Luz Cotto, whose son plays basketball, does see a difference. She likes seeing the staff outside each morning to greet students, and if a parent has a concern, it gets resolved.
"I think this year they are more on top of the students," she said. "Ever since they have a new principal, it's better."
Jennifer Morales, who has two children and a nephew at Hayden-McFadden, also had good things to say. When her daughter, fourth-grader Bryana Rivera, first came home talking about a new cheerleading team, Morales wasn't sure if it was for real. But it was. Now Bryana comes home from practice happy and tired.
"It's fun for me," Bryana said.
Her mother said the school has gotten better. "I think the kids are encouraged now, and they're focused now," she said.
The cheerleading team was founded in February by two teachers, Jasmine Gonzalez and Felicia Estrella, who are former cheerleaders, according to Gonzalez. Gonzalez is new to Hayden-McFadden this year and teaches fourth grade.
The team raised money for several months to buy uniforms, and in May, they cheered for their first game, even though their crisp blue-and-white uniforms weren't yet complete.
"Almost every girl on the team donated something," Gonzalez said. They were excited. "A lot of them, they've never participated in any after-school activity before," she said.
Right now, cheerleading is open to grades 4 and 5, but the coaches hope to hold weekly practice clinics for younger grades next year.
With all the new activities and school-to-home communications, Principal Tammy Morgan said the relationships between the staff and community are stronger.
Periodic testing shows students are learning, she said. Mid-year measures of grade equivalency, for example, showed that fourth-graders were four months behind the expected level but had made up a year's gains in the first four months of school. End-of-year results are expected to be released this month.
"We are very happy with the progress our students have made," she said.
And in a kindergarten classroom designed for newcomers to the United States who speak little English, children's language development has been "phenomenal," Morgan said.
In the spring, students took the MCAS, but the state does not usually release those scores until the fall.
Morgan said Hayden-McFadden always functions in the context of deprivation — some families have no permanent place to live, or don't have enough food. For students who are not showing increases in their scores, the staff are constantly examining ways to adjust their teaching approach to get better results, "and always, in the end, asking ourselves what's best for students," she said.
Although reform efforts can strain the relationship between teachers and administration, teachers' union president Lou St. John said he isn't hearing many teacher complaints from HayMac.
"I have not really received any complaints whatsoever," he said. "I can't even tell you what they were, they were that minor."
Next year, Morgan said she wants to continue to increase parent involvement, especially by helping parents to support their children's academics at home.
Tillson agreed that was critical, especially for Spanish-speaking parents.
"I can't imagine being a Spanish-speaking parent who doesn't even read English and having to explain how to do the math," she said.
Follow Jennette Barnes on Twitter @jbarnesnews