Connolly to chair new Lawrence school oversight board

Connolly to chair new Lawrence school oversight board

Former Boston city councilor founded education nonprofit following 2013 mayoral bid

JOHN CONNOLLY, WHO made education the centerpiece of his unsuccessful 2013 campaign for mayor in Boston, has been tapped to chair the new state-appointed board that will oversee the Lawrence public schools.

The state’s acting education commissioner, Jeff Wulfson, named Connolly to helm the board, which will assume the role of state receiver currently held by Jeff Riley. Riley is slated to become the state’s next education commissioner post after winning the recommendation last week of the state education board.

Riley announced in November that he planned to leave the Lawrence post at the end of the current school year. At that time, state officials said the district would transition from being run by a single receiver-superintendent to having a state-appointed oversight board, which will act as state-appointed receiver. The new board will, in turn, be responsible for hiring a superintendent to direct the day-to-day operations of the district.

Wulfson announced at that time that Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera would fill one of the slots on a new seven-member board, which will be known as the Lawrence Alliance for Education.

Also named today to the board along with Connolly were four other members: Jessica Andors, the executive director of Lawrence Community Works, a community development corporation; Noemi Custodia-Lora, vice president of the Lawrence campus of Northern Essex Community College; Patricia Mariano, a member of Lawrence’s elected school committee and former principal of a Lawrence elementary school; and Ventura Rodriguez, associate commissioner for the statewide system of support at the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. A seventh member of the board is expected to be named soon, according to the state education department.

“In selecting these people, I looked for people with a record of success in improving schools, as well as people with knowledge of the community,” Wulfson said in a statement.

Following the 2013 mayor’s race, Connolly, a former Boston city councilor, founded 1647, a nonprofit that works to help schools increase family engagement.

A linchpin of the Lawrence turnaround plan under Riley has been an approach dubbed the “open architecture” model, which has decentralized a good deal of authority in the district, reducing the role of the central office and giving individual schools more autonomy over everything from curriculum to budgeting to the school day schedule. It borrows from an idea gaining popularity in education circles that improvement occurs at the school level, and that more control – and accountability for results – should be placed there.

“Lawrence is one of the most exciting places on the national landscape because they’ve been building on this open architecture system,” said Connolly. “And that work, I think, really needs to continue.”

Connolly, who lives in West Roxbury, said the nonprofit he directs has been doing work on parent engagement in Lawrence. “So I have seen it in action, and it really is building schools from the grassroots up,” he said of the decentralized structure. “They have a budget process where school communities make real budget decisions in conjunction with the parents.”

The state took control of the Lawrence schools in 2011 under provisions of a new education law allowing for state intervention in chronically low-performing schools and districts. At the time, the district was one of the lowest-performing in the state and only half of its students were completing high school. A succession of superintendents had been fired by the district, with the last one landing in jail on corruption charges.

Riley, a former Boston school administrator and principal, was named receiver in 2012 and given sweeping powers over the district. He replaced about half of the district’s principals, extended the school day for all K-8 schools, and brought in charter school leaders to operate two of the district’s most troubled schools.

The district has seen encouraging signs of progress. The graduation rate has increased by 19 percentage points and the dropout rate fell by more than half, while the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on the 10th grade MCAS test has increased by 18 points in math and 24 points in English language arts.

State officials have made clear that the district will remain under state control, but Wulfson said in November that the transition to a board was a way to include Lawrence representatives while maintaining state oversight.

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Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“It seems like it’s a good next step,” Wulfson said at the time. “It’s a way of bringing together some of the state folks and local voices.”

Wulfson said at the time that new board would assume control of the district on July 1.