Underperforming schools take on partners to stave off state takeover

Boston and three other Massachusetts cities, in an attempt to stave off a state takeover of underperforming schools, are turning to nonprofit partners to jump-start flagging overhaul efforts.

Eight schools in Boston, Fall River, Holyoke, and Springfield are facing the prospect of a takeover. All of them — including the long-troubled English High School in Boston — are heeding strong suggestions by state officials and bringing in a nonprofit partner.

New Bedford also has an underperforming school at risk of takeover, but officials there have declined to bring in a partner for help.

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The nine schools could be the first to face receivership under a 2010 state law that made clear that state education officials have the authority to take control of individual schools deemed unable to properly educate students.

The nonprofit partners, all specialists in education strategy, will work with school administration and staff on such things as hiring and training of teachers, or tutoring students. The partners will not run the schools outright.

Mitchell Chester, state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said in an interview Friday that overhaul attempts at the targeted schools have been disappointing. In many cases, he said, they have been losing ground.

“I am not inclined to let them muddle along and hope that next year will turn out better,” said Chester, as he traveled back from Springfield, where possible state receivership looms over four schools.

“I have encouraged those superintendents to really take matters in their own hands and implement a strategy that will give me confidence that the districts can manage a turnaround on their own,” he said.

Aside from English High, a second school in Boston — the Elihu Greenwood Leadership Academy, an elementary school in Hyde Park that almost closed a few years ago — is facing possible receivership. Fall River, Holyoke, and New Bedford each have one school in jeopardy.

In Boston, the superintendent’s office just notified School Committee members late Friday afternoon — after the Globe began raising questions — about the possible receivership, and noted it was working to bring in Blueprint Schools Network in Newton to work with English High and Greenwood.

“I’m truly surprised that this is the first time I’m hearing about this,” said Mary Tamer, a School Committee member. “I find it very troubling, and I really wonder why we haven’t heard about this sooner, given the district has been in conversations now for several months.”

The Boston School Department also mailed out letters Friday to families, but only mentioned the partnerships and made no reference to possible receivership.

Superintendent Carol R. Johnson expressed optimism that a new headmaster at English High this year is pushing the school forward, and said a decision to relocate a special education program to Greenwood in the midst of its turnaround contributed to the drop in scores. “We want to make sure they move forward rapidly,” she said Friday, “and we have been intervening.”

In other cities, the issue has been publicly discussed at school committee meetings and with families.

Fall River decided in December to shut down the Henry Lord Middle School at the end of this school year and replace it with an “early college” high school, potentially tapping Blueprint Schools in that endeavor.

Springfield announced in January that it was hiring Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University (Ed Labs), which is led by rising star economist Roland Fryer, to work with its four targeted schools as well as a fifth school that the state just declared underperforming this year.

And Holyoke later decided on a partnership between Project Grad and William J. Dean Vocational Technical High School.

Although details in Boston are still being worked out, Blueprint Schools will at a minimum provide guidance on running the schools based on five elements commonly found at successful charter schools: excellence in leadership and instruction, increased instructional time, a culture of high expectations for all, frequent assessment to improve instruction, and daily math tutoring in “critical growth years.”

The elements are based on a study that was conducted by Ed Labs, which also uses the concepts in its school turnaround partnerships.

Matthew Spengler, Blueprint’s executive director, said he is eager to take on the challenge of helping the two schools, particularly English High, which proudly proclaims itself to be the oldest high school in the nation. Blueprint has been working with a group of schools in Denver, including a struggling high school.

“It’s not an easy job, and there are not many success stories out there,” Spengler said. “But we have been very encouraged by some of the first-year results in Denver.”

The nine schools are among the original 35 underperforming schools the state designated three years ago under a state law enacted at that time to reverse chronically low achievement at dozens of schools across the state. That law gives schools three years to improve or face state receivership.

Chester said he decided to give the districts’ one more chance at salvaging the schools because he believes receivership should be a last-resort measure. He has not approved any of the partnerships yet.

“We would much rather school districts retain local authority over their schools,” Chester said. “We would rather for them to be successful with the turnarounds.”

Achievement at roughly a third of those schools, Chester said, has risen sharply, giving him optimism that they will no longer be underperforming this fall. Results at the other schools, he said, have not been as strong or are shaky.

Test scores at both the Greenwood and English have dropped sharply during their turnaround effort, in spite of the infusion of hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal school improvement grants that have helped to lengthen the school day and train teachers, and other initiatives.

The state was so concerned last year that English had veered off course that officials decided to withhold more than $900,000 in the federal school improvement funds until a more sound turnaround plan was developed.

“Right now, I have not seen evidence we are moving in the right direction,” Chester said.