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State sets plan to fix schools in Lawrence

New partnership with charters a key; Could be a model for other systems

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / May 30, 2012
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State education officials plan to announce Wednesday a first-of-its-kind overhaul of the failing Lawrence schools, with much more instructional time and a bold partnership between charter schools and the school district.

The overhaul is expected to take several years to yield results in a city where less than half the students graduate from high school in four years. If the plan is successful, it could serve as a blueprint to turn around other ailing systems across the state.

Other elements call for fixing deteriorating school buildings; empowering teachers, principals, parents, and community members to lead school change efforts; and overhauling programs for students learning to speak English, who make up about a quarter of the nearly 13,000 students.

The goal is to greatly accelerate student achievement, pushing Lawrence from one of the lowest-performing urban systems in the state to one of the highest-performing ones. The plan will be formally presented to the public at a news conference at the South Lawrence East Educational Complex.

“I’m now at the point where I have a plan in place that I have the confidence will turn around the Lawrence school district,’’ said Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, who on Tuesday approved the plan, developed by the school system’s receiver and a group of parents, community leaders, and business people. “As you know, I have had grave concerns about the Lawrence schools.’’

Governor Deval Patrick said the plan “will usher in new opportunities and possibilities’’ for the students of Lawrence.

“We are committed to working with the Lawrence public schools to ensure students receive the world-class education they deserve,’’ Patrick said.

In a historic move last November, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to place Lawrence schools into receivership in hope of reversing years of dismal academic performance at most of its 28 schools. The vote marked the first time the board had ever fully taken over a school district’s finances and academic programs.

The state formally took control of the system in January, appointing Jeffrey Riley, a former Boston school administrator, as receiver. He spent the past four months evaluating the school system as he developed a turnaround plan in partnership with school and community members.

A key component of the plan is to provide intensive intervention at schools that need it the most and greater autonomy to schools showing signs of promise.

“There are some talented people already working in the Lawrence schools, and we want to bring in some partners that we can add to this team,’’ Riley said.

Starting this fall, two charter school organizations - Community Day Charter School in Lawrence and Unlocking Potential in Boston - will each partner with an underperforming school, providing managerial oversight, revamping programs, and infusing instructional techniques and other practices that have yielded success in their schools.

Community Day has a track record of academic achievement on state standardized tests, while Unlocking Potential is a startup school-turnaround organization that converted the Gavin Middle School in Boston into a charter school about a year ago on behalf of that city’s school system.

But Riley emphasized that the underperfoming schools will not officially convert into charter schools, noting those schools will continue to serve children from their neighborhoods and will employ unionized teachers.

Two other charter schools will also get involved in the system. MATCH Charter School in Boston will provide 50 tutors to two city high schools, while Phoenix Charter Academy in Chelsea will start an alternative high school targeting dropouts.

Such arrangements are at the forefront of an emerging movement of school districts working more cooperatively with charter schools across the country. Last year, the city of Boston signed a compact with the independently run charter schools in the city, pledging greater cooperation. Some city schools are already benefiting from partnerships, such as MATCH sending tutors to some Boston schools.

Adding instructional time at most schools will take longer to enact. Riley said he is allowing each school to develop a plan on how to add the additional hours, which could occur by extending the school day or adding days to the school year.

Frank McLaughlin, the teachers union president, said Tuesday he could not comment on the specifics of the plan because he had not yet been presented a copy of it, but said he was eager to work with Riley to turn around the school system.

“We have a good working relationship and a shared vision for the city of Lawrence,’’ McLaughlin said. “Now we have to work on getting there. . . . We both have tremendous empathy for children of Lawrence and the problems they face. We want to stand ready to help them.’’

Mayor William Lantigua, who had made a public appeal for state intervention, expressed optimism about the plan in a statement.

“I’m very confident in our new leadership at the Lawrence public schools with Receiver Jeff Riley, and I feel that this turnaround plan is exactly what the children of Lawrence need,’’ Lantigua said in a statement.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.

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