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A city's catalyst

Principal in Lawrence struggles against odds

LAWRENCE -- This old mill town has had more than its fair share of misery. The trifecta of poverty, crime, and scandal has taken its toll. The schools have had a terrible ride. Visionary leadership over the years has been spotty. To most outsiders, the place is in the weeds.

Its travails contrast with what happened to its sister city up the Merrimack that a few decades ago was in pretty much the same shape.

Lowell may not be a garden spot today, but it has come a long way. Why? Start with two words: Paul Tsongas. The former Lowell city councilor who went on to become a United States senator did great things for his home town.

While it would be ludicrous to credit Tsongas alone with Lowell's success, he was a catalyst for change there. Among its other problems, Lawrence had no Tsongas, no such charismatic figure with brains and passion to take it places, and it shows.

As if it needed any more trouble, Lawrence got hit with flooding recently, which cost it the first week scheduled for MCAS testing. The Observer decided to motor north to see how it was faring.

The city is not Helsinki to me. I grew up across the river and harbor fond memories of Bishop's, its late, great Lebanese-American restaurant, and the ghost of A.B. Sutherland on Essex Street.

I wandered into a huge building on Haverhill. No particular reason. You've got to start somewhere. It turned out to be the Henry K. Oliver School -- 680 children, first through eighth grade. Ninety-seven percent Hispanic. Ninety-seven percent Hispanic. What's up with that?

What's up is that the school struggles with esprit and moxie to educate its students against long odds. Its MCAS performance can be harrowing and its progress thin. Yet principal Beth Gannon and Ginni Sirois , assistant principal for grades 5 through 8, support the much-reviled test. ``It has really raised the bar," Sirois said.

Parents registering their children at Oliver are asked to indicate where the youngsters were born. According to school data, 387 were born in the Dominican Republic and 240 in Puerto Rico. The combined 627 out of 680 seems wildly improbable.

What those figures reflect is the ethnicity of parents whose weak grasp of English led some of them to misinterpret the question, Gannon said. This year, Oliver received 30 children who arrived from other countries, all Hispanic.

Oliver is grappling with the state-mandated, one-year English immersion program that replaced bilingual education three years ago.

Under immersion, children who qualify receive 2 1/2 hours of language training in small groups each school day for a school year.

Neither Gannon nor Sirois gnash their teeth over the demise of bilingual education. They say the new system works for most students.

``After the first year, the average child understands what the instructor is saying and can respond in English," Gannon said. They read on or near grade level. After the second year, they should be fully acclimated."

Some need more help, and Gannon has no compunction about giving it to them at a reduced level in the second year, usually through reading classes. This is still a far cry from the long arc of bilingual programs, well-meaning constructs that warped themselves out of existence.

``The law says you must do X," she says. ``But I'm not going to stop because today is the cut-off date. There's a little child sitting in front of you who needs more help. We're the professionals. We know how to assess a child."

Gannon noted the speed with which new students from other countries learn English depends in part on how well they speak their native language. If they speak it well, they have a frame of reference on which to build. If not -- and many don't -- they struggle. Gannon cites the case of a second-grader from the Dominican Republic who had never been in school and faces a tough haul with English.

Orlando, in contrast, cruised through English immersion last year in part because the 14-year-old from Puerto Rico had decent schooling there. He is headed to Greater Lawrence Technical School next year to learn auto mechanics.

Gannon, 33, is finishing her first year at Oliver. She came from a parochial school in Pittsfield that she said was about 97 percent white. She had four offers and chose Oliver over three comfy suburban situations. Sirois, 56, who grew up a few blocks from Oliver, never left Lawrence. She's been teaching Spanish, of all things, at the school since 1970, back when the school was full of Italians, Irish, and blacks. What both women share is grit.

``You have to have a certain level of Don Quixote in you to do this job," Gannon said. ``You have to go out and fight every day and then come back out again the next day. Everybody jokes about No Child Left Behind, but I took this job because of the commitment here to bring each child along."

Gannon gives me faith. She imparts the truth of the trenches. The thing about progress is you grab what you can and declare victory. Then you go back for more. Gannon practices what she preaches. I wonder how long she'll last.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

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