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Randolph makes the grade

Schools are on the upswing, as is the town itself

Hannah Donovan (left), winner of the award for the district’s top female student, chats with classmate Jasmin Wilson during a public speaking course at Randolph High. Hannah Donovan (left), winner of the award for the district’s top female student, chats with classmate Jasmin Wilson during a public speaking course at Randolph High. (Photos By Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Wendy Chow
Globe Staff / April 21, 2011

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Four years ago, Kevin and Laura Donovan debated whether to send their oldest child to the local high school or to a private one. At that time, Randolph residents with the means were abandoning the public schools in droves, fed up with years of budget cuts and increased reports of violence.

But after looking into Archbishop Williams in Braintree, Cardinal Spellman in Brockton, and Fontbonne Academy in Milton, the Donovans chose to keep Hannah in town, enrolling her at Randolph High.

“We felt confident [Hannah] would have a good education in Randolph,’’ said Kevin Donovan, a self-employed contractor. He and his wife cited Hannah’s excellent grades, high standardized-test scores, and overall happiness with the district where she had attended class since kindergarten.

The Donovans believe they made the right decision: Hannah, now a 17-year-old senior, recently won the superintendent’s award as the Randolph school district’s top female student and is thriving academically, athletically, and socially. And the Donovans say they are not considering private or parochial school for their younger children, Charlotte, 15, and Luke, 12, and are putting their faith in their hometown.

Randolph is on the rebound, the Donovans, other residents, and local officials say, and not just in the schools, where grades and conditions have improved significantly since the days when the town was labeled “broken’’ in a front-page headline in a local newspaper.

That was in 2007 — a “particularly difficult’’ year, Town Manager David Murphy said in an interview recently.

Chronically low scores on the MCAS test prompted the state to designate Randolph’s schools as “under-performing’’ and threaten a takeover that year. The high school’s accreditation was in jeopardy. Political infighting at Town Hall was a source of embarrassment, and a series of homicides put a negative spotlight on the town.

But from that low point, residents were galvanized to action. In April 2008, local voters approved a $6.1 million override of Proposition 2 1/2, the state law that limits the amount of additional property tax revenue a community can raise each year to 2.5 percent plus money coming from new real estate development. It was a dramatic victory for proponents: Aside from a $14.1 million debt exclusion in 1997 to renovate the junior high school, Randolph had never passed a tax-limit override. The override added almost $500 to the average tax bill, from $3,148 in 2008 to $3,618 in 2009. (The average bill this year is $3,912.)

“The residents who supported the override did so to make an investment in this town with public education and public safety,’’ said Town Clerk Brian Howard.

The investment is paying off. In February this year, the high school was removed from probation, its accreditation through the New England Association of Schools and Colleges no longer in jeopardy.

School officials are overjoyed.

“To be removed from NEASC probationary status — with all the items that required attention — in just three years is nothing short of miraculous,’’ said School Committee member Sharon Swain.

On the MCAS front, the high school has achieved Adequate Yearly Progress for the second-straight year. A number of students have been honored for getting perfect scores in the MCAS, including Hannah Donovan in biology in ninth grade and 10-grade English language arts, and sister Charlotte in eighth-grade math.

With the better test scores, other parents in town have been taking a second look at the local school system. For the first time in 11 years, enrollment is up, with 2,876 students registered this year compared with 2,851 last year. The town has a population of 32,112.

The district’s music program, once a source of pride for the town, had been decimated to just two general music teachers covering the five elementary schools (which became four after one school was closed in 2008). But instrument instruction returned to the elementary schools in September for the first time in seven years, said Swain, president of the Randolph Music Boosters. Additionally, the high school now has a marching band, after going without one for 20 years.

Another draw for local parents today is free, full-day kindergarten at the elementary schools.

Oscar Santos, superintendent of schools and a Randolph resident since 2000, said the town has offered full-day kindergarten for three years and soon will be able to determine how much it has helped.

“Those students next year, when they take the third-grade MCAS, we’ll be able to get a sense of the payoffs,’’ he said. “We see the payoffs every single day — kindergarten students who are writing, articulating, engaging in meaningful dialogue. We’re seeing the benefits right away, and want to make sure we continue to measure those gains with the state standards.’’

The school system has also been winning grants, including money to increase the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses. Randolph High is in its second year of a five-year Advanced Placement grant from the Mass Math and Science Initiative, aimed at underserved students.

Additionally, a $200,000 planning grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation could potentially become an annual windfall of $1.5 million or more for three years or longer. The initial grant is being used to help the district design a plan to create a student-centered education system. The best plans will win the additional money for implementation.

The public is invited to a celebration on May 11 to kick off the student-centered learning plan, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Lantana function facility. The evening will include dinner and an explanation of student-centered learning.

Meanwhile, the town’s Turner Free Library, in jeopardy of losing its accreditation in 2007 because of budget cuts and reduced hours, also appears to be back in good shape, after an outpouring of support by patrons who circulated petitions urging increased funding. A new director was hired last year, and the library is more popular than ever. Users now flock to its new computers, free computer instruction, employment workshops, and a new teen area with manga, anime, and trading card clubs. The library also holds a classic film festival and additional children’s story and craft times.

“We have tripled the number of seats in the building and still often have people sitting on the floor,’’ said library director Sara Slymon.

Impressive gains have also been made in public safety, according to authorities. For the second consecutive year, Randolph’s crime rate has dropped, said Police Chief William Pace. The total crime rate for 2010 is down 21.6 percent from 2009. The largest drop, 27.4 percent, was in motor vehicle thefts, from 51 in 2009 to 37 in 2010. The town’s crime rate dropped about 11 percent from 2008 to 2009.

Pace said revenue from the tax-limit override allowed the department to hire 10 new officers and the flexibility to implement new policing initiatives, including a motorcycle unit that assists with traffic control and neighborhood patrols.

The Police Department is also working closely with the probation office at Quincy District Court to keep track of young residents with gang ties. James J. Brennan, acting chief probation officer, said Randolph was one of the first departments to collaborate with the agency to monitor gang activity.

Town Hall, too, has been through a sea change, after voters in 2008 switched from the town meeting form of government to a nine-member council and town manager. Murphy, who was hired as executive secretary to the Board of Selectmen in 2008, became town manager a year later. He says the new form of government has worked better to help foster improvements in town.

“My experience when I got here as executive secretary was that we had elected department heads — there were a lot of good people, but the organizational chart was horizontal, so it didn’t lend itself well to long-range planning,’’ Murphy said. “We had some political infighting. . . . It just didn’t lend itself well to an efficient operation.’’

Murphy said he has focused on building the town’s financial foundation. The town’s coffers have been helped by the sale of several surplus town properties, an anticipated $500,000 from new billboards on Route 24 near the town landfill, and a $6.1 million energy-efficiency program with utility provider Honeywell. Under the program, Honeywell will make improvements to town buildings — everything from new light bulbs to boilers — and the money saved through the more energy-efficient systems will go toward paying back Honeywell for its investment.

Randolph also has reached agreements with the town’s police and firefighters unions to tie annual contractual raises to the growth of town revenues, a move town officials believe is the first of its kind in the state’s public sector.

“We’ve looked at the big budget-busters, addressed health care, energy, [and we are] looking at our pension costs,’’ said Murphy. “We’re also looking at everything in between. We’ve audited our phone bills and saved $10,000. It doesn’t need to be a $2 million line on the budget for us to address it. Granted, in the context of a $75 million budget . . . but a thousand here, a thousand there, you add it up, and you have significant savings.’’

Savings would also come from the town’s improved credit ratings. Last April, Randolph received a double bond rating increase from Standard and Poor’s, going from an A- to an A+.

Several projects in the works would further improve the quality of life in Randolph. The town received two public works economic grants, totaling $2.4 million, to remake the downtown into a pedestrian-friendly area in hopes of attracting businesses.

Organizers are also planning to renovate the town playground, called Imagination Station, to include a splash park. Powers Farm is being developed into a park and recreation area, and the town will spend $2.85 million to redesign the high school football field and track, as well as the tennis and basketball courts at the other schools. Also, a parcel on the southern edge of town is in the planning stages for a dog park.

“I think of Randolph as an unpolished diamond,’’ said Murphy. “When you look at the diversity of the people, the geography, the resources, I think you have the potential to be really one of the better communities in the Commonwealth. A lot of people may say you have a long way to go. Sure we do, but there’s no reason why we can’t get there.’’

Randolph resident Wendy Chow can be reached at wchow@globe.com.