The city of Mass. transformed its school system

Lawrence was a plummeting school district when the state took over in the fall of 2011.

Schools have been rocked by allegations of mismanagement and corruption. The district ranked in the bottom 5%. Only about half of its students graduated on time.

Six and a half years later, Lawrence is a widely recognized success in a failed movement. The high school dropout rate has more than halved. Scores in math and science more than doubled. The graduation rate jumped 19 percentage points.

Lawrence looks like Providence. The schools serve approximately 13,000 students, 90% of whom come from low-income families and 70% of whom speak English as a second language.

Like Providence, the city, a former mill town, has a large Latin American population, many of whom came from the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico.

Providence is larger, with 24,000 students, 65% of whom are Latinos and 31% learning English.

As the federal No Child Left Behind law suffocated states, Massachusetts made a bold move in 2011: the legislature passed a law authorizing the state Department of Education to make sweeping changes to failing school districts. chronic. Lawrence was the first district the state took over, transferring power from an elected school board to a state-appointed receiver.

But it was the person chosen to lead the district that set the tone for success, according to Mary Toomey, deputy district superintendent. Jeffrey Riley was a seasoned urban leader who led the recovery effort in Boston. He brought a lot of credibility to the education street with him.

“He came with his main hat,” Toomey said. “He took the time to listen to what children, teachers and families had to say about their schools.”

Riley, who is now Massachusetts Education Commissioner, spent his first five months in Lawrence on a listening tour before launching a turnaround plan in the 2012-13 school year, according to Kennedy’s Beth Schueler Harvard University School of Government.

Although state law gave Riley latitude to fire teachers and tear up teachers’ contracts, he chose to tread lightly.

“The receiver didn’t use all the authority they had,” said Paul Reville, the former education secretary who crafted Lawrence’s takeover plan. “He could have canceled large swaths of the teachers’ contract, but he didn’t. He brought them to the table. More importantly, he had broad support. Community leaders welcomed him.”

But Riley wasn’t afraid to upset the status quo.

It replaces half of the directors during the first two years, but retains 90% of the teachers.

“The reality is that I could have every teacher, if I chose, reapply for their position,” Riley told Schueler … But I wanted to take a more measured approach.

Then he took the “third rail” of education policy, replacing the age-old pay system in which teachers receive raises based on district seniority with a merit-based scale. Riley created an incentive, paying teachers more if they passed a rigorous application process to qualify as master teachers. Toomey said between 20 and 40 teachers had successfully applied.

“The problem is too big for a civil war,” Riley reportedly said in a Schueler article… “So sometimes I take blows from extremists in the traditional camp. Sometimes I take blows from extremists in the ‘charter schools are the only way’ camp. … I’ve seen many types of good schools. Parents just want a good school for their child.”

Riley’s Legendary Talent because collaboration was the ticket that allowed all sides to talk to each other.

“Riley would talk to teachers more than principals,” Toomey said. “He gave his cell phone [number]. He wanted to know what was really going on” in the schools.

It also gave principals the freedom to choose their own curriculum, assign teachers, and generally manage their buildings, but they were held accountable for improving academics.

However, it wasn’t all about test sores. Riley’s team engaged community partners to restore the arts because he wanted Lawrence students to have the same opportunities for enrichment as their affluent peers.

Perhaps nothing was more crucial than lengthening the school day. Each school added 200 hours. A few schools have applied for state grants to add up to 500 hours, or 20 extra days of instruction.

Riley also recognized that struggling students needed extraordinary help. He recruited high-performing teachers to work on single subjects with small groups of students during week-long vacations.

The reward was remarkable. A study by three Harvard researchers found that academies had “significant positive impacts on achievement” in the subjects they focus on.

A big question facing Providence is the cost of a successful takeover.

Riley was forced to make painful choices, shrinking the central office by more than a third. These funds were transferred to individual schools to give principals the money needed to introduce the arts.

“The receivership didn’t come with a pot of gold,” Riley would say.

“Jeff was very, very good at working with philanthropy and private funders,” Toomey said.

The state takeover is coming to an end. Riley resigned at the end of the 2017-18 school year and was replaced by a state-appointed board. A new superintendent has been hired.

The neighborhood is far from fixed. Student performance remains a stubborn challenge. Schools struggle to retain good teachers.

But six and a half years into the state’s bold action on local education in Lawrence, the town that was once a poster child for urban failure is a star in the turnaround firmament.

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Jeremy S. McLain