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Falling short in turning around the Lawrence schools

Posted by Jim Stergios  May 31, 2012 08:50 AM

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In November 2011, the Board of Education decided to put the city of Lawrence's public schools into receivership. With that announcement the power to install a receiver for the district was given to the state's education commissioner. The January appointment of Jeffrey Riley as receiver by the Education Commissioner was well received. Riley has experience as a Teacher for America and also as a principal of a challenging school. His work as the Chief Innovation Officer in Boston's schools was marked by a steady but persistent push for change.

So, yesterday the receiver and the commissioner made public the state's turnaround plan for the Lawrence Public Schools today with fanfare and much talk about urgency. The Lawrence Eagle Tribune lists key highlights of the state's turnaround plan for the city's public schools as:

  • A requirement that starting in the 2103-2014 school year, all Lawrence public schools will be required to have a minimum of 1,330 school hours, adding 160 hours to the school year.
  • ...
  • Many of the changes will require a renegotiation of contracts for teachers in the district to accommodate for longer hours and duties.
  • Funding for all the new initiatives will come from the school department budget.
  • [...] Six principals have already been informed they won't be returning in the fall, a number of teachers will not be invited back.

Then there is the biggest change of all included in today's announcement:

  • Private education firms with proven track records of running successful charter schools in Boston, Chelsea and Lawrence will be brought in to take over management of Lawrence's worst schools, provide tutoring in two of the city's high schools and run a new alternative high school targeting dropouts.
  • Let's unpack exactly what this is and isn't. First, the private education firms we are talking about are charter schools and school operators--Unlocking Potential (UP), which has taken over what was the Gavin School (a district school) in Boston and changed its operation from inside the district; Lawrence Community Day Charter School (LCDCS), which is a longtime charter school operator in Lawrence; MATCH Charter Schools, an operator of three schools in Boston; and Phoenix Charter Academy, which operates a Chelsea-based school that focuses on putting at-risk students and dropouts on a college track.

    • As is the case with the Gavin, UP will re-engineer the management and operations of a middle school;
    • LCDCS will begin managing an elementary school;
    • MATCH will provide tutors to two high schools; and
    • Phoenix "will start a new alternative high school targeting dropouts."

    All of this work will be done "within the system," that is, within the district and with unionized teachers but with carve-out agreements that will give the charter operators the flexibility to change the district schools for a period of years.

    This is all good stuff to do, and the charter operators brought in are precisely the caliber of people with the level of commitment to get the job done... in the limited scope they've been given. But why is it that with such a dire reality in the LPS our education leaders still could not muster the courage to expand on the one proven mechanism for bridging achievement gaps--charter schools? Why couldn't the receiver and ed commissioner lead an effort to allow a special expansion of charter schools in Lawrence? Instead, this turnaround plan strikes me as a good initial step but a step in the continued dance of the adults who protect their turf and jobs and money.

    If not, why insist that these charter operators tether themselves to the district schools and to the unions?

    And isn't it odd that we are settling on a solution where at most these charter operators operating district schools will touch the lives of only 1,500 of the 13,000 students in the district? Put that up against the challenge recognized by the Massachusetts ed department and board when they declared Lawrence would be put into receivership:

    Three-fourths of the schools in Lawrence experienced declines in student achievement from 2010-2011, and five of the 28 Lawrence schools are now in Level 4. District-wide performance in ELA and math is among the bottom one percent of all the state's school districts; Lawrence has the third lowest math Composite Performance Index (CPI) and fourth lowest ELA CPI in the Commonwealth. Less than one-half of Lawrence's students graduate from high school within 4 years, which is the lowest graduation rate of any (non-charter) district in the state.

    The turnaround plan's second major element is an addition of 160 hours to the school year (that's around 4 weeks) -- and that could help. But the fact is that extended learning time efforts, as I have pointed out recently and admittedly to my own surprise, have not borne fruit five years into the experiment. So there is no empirical reason to be optimistic that in the Lawrence Public School setting additional time will translate into big gains.

    And, after all, that's what this turnaround operation has to be about. It can't aim for modest improvement. The baseline is so low that any turnaround plan worth its salt has to aim for huge change.

    I know the ed commissioner declared that he is "jazzed up about this" new plan. Perhaps he was referring to these two blogs (1 and 2) I did on how Lawrence should adopt the New Orleans model for a district turnaround.

    Remember: Almost all of the money going into the Lawrence Public Schools come from the state. The money for the additional extended learning time proposed in the turnaround plan will be paid for by the state.

    So let me summarize: The situation is dire, with a "four-year gradutation rat eof 52 percent in the 2010-11 school year, 31 points below the state average, and nearly a quarter of high school freshmen fail[ing] to be promoted to the 10th grade." The state pays for the schools and is going to pay more for extended learning time. Extended learning time has a poor track record in improving students' academic achievement in district schools. We have refused to expand charter schools, which are the only proven mechanism for bridging achievement gaps.

    I wish the charter operators the very best and know they will work incredibly hard and make their important efforts successes. I wish the teachers in LPS the best of luck in making extended learning a success. I wish Jeff Riley the best of success in making progress on this plan, however limited it is.

    But why is it, if the situation is as dire as the data suggest and as the parents themselves tell us, that the adults in the system always win out? Why not a deeper, district-wide transformation based on proven models?

    This plan falls far short of the target, no matter how often our top officials crow about how they are bringing Lawrence schoolkids "the world-class education they deserve."

    Crossposted at Pioneer's blog. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer's website.

    This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
    The author is solely responsible for the content.

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    About the author

    Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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