State officials announce Lawrence school turnaround plan
More time in classroom, charter operators key components
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
Lawrence public school students will be expected to spend more time in the classroom under a plan state education leaders plan to announce Wednesday to reverse the trend of chronic underperformance.
The state also plans to bring in four education firms with proven track records of running successful charter schools in Boston, Chelsea, and Lawrence to take over management of Lawrence’s worst schools, provide tutoring in two of the city’s high schools and run a new alternative high school targeting dropouts.
In November 2011, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education took the unprecedented step of voting to place the Lawrence public school system in receivership, citing the struggles of a district that ranked among the lowest in the state on MCAS performance and where only 52 percent of students graduated from high school in four years.
Five schools have been officially designated underperforming, or Level 4, in the past two years, and a district review cited inconsistent quality of instruction, the lack of stable, experienced leadership and low expectations and complacency among the root causes of poor student achievement.
The state officially took over the schools in January. Jeffrey Riley, a former Boston school administrator, was named as the receiver and convened a stakeholder group to consider ways to change the direction of the impoverished city’s schools. Chester and Riley plan to release the details of the school turnaround plan at a press conference Wednesday morning at the South Lawrence East Educational Complex.
Among the provisions of the plan is a requirement that starting in the 2103-2014 school year, all Lawrence public schools will be required to have a minimum of 1,330 school hours, adding 160 hours to the school year.
“We believe more time is needed for students of Lawrence to have the opportunity to excel,” Chester said, adding that some schools may opt for longer school days, a longer school year or summer classes, and the increased instruction time will include enrichment programs such as art and intramural sports.
Though the public school will remain neighborhood-based and operate under the current union structure, the state also plans to hire several charter school operators to assist in the turnaround, experimenting with a new form of collaboration.
Unlocking Potential will be brought in to provide managerial oversight at the Leonard Middle School, and the operators of Lawrence Community Day Charter School will take over the Arlington Elementary School starting with kindergarten and first grade the first year and expanding to all grades the year after.
“I’m really jazzed about this,” Chester told the News Service. “I think we have a winning formula here.”
Many of the changes will require a renegotiation of contracts for teachers in the district to accommodate for longer hours and duties, but Chester said he expects the status quo to change. “We expect to compensate people, but we expect there will be more novel approaches to compensation than simply how many years you’ve taught and how many credits of education you’ve earned,” he said.
Funding for all the new initiatives will come from the school department budget, and Chester said he is encouraged by the House and Senate budget plans that would increase state aid for education in all cities and towns and bring Lawrence to foundation level.
The introduction of the charter school management to the district will also require a reshuffling of staff. Chester said six principals have already been informed they won’t be returning in the fall, and he expects a number of teachers will not be invited back.
“The majority of the educators in Lawrence are more than welcome to be part of this turnaround. We need them. There are many strong teachers and administrators,” Chester said.
Gov. Deval Patrick issued a statement in support of the plan, expressing his administration’s commitment to “ensure students receive the world-class education they deserve.”
“More time in the classroom, effective partnerships with proven providers, and higher expectations for school leadership, teachers and students will usher in new opportunities and possibilities. Our kids, their parents and the greater Lawrence community need public schools that consistently thrive, and we can’t wait any longer for that,” Patrick said.
The Lawrence Public Schools had a four-year graduation rate of 52 percent in the 2010-11 school year, 31 points below the state average, and nearly a quarter of high school freshmen failed to be promoted to the 10th grade.Proficiency rates on MCAS testing in Lawrence schools also average 28 percentage points lower than the state in English language arts and 29 points lower in math. Lawrence ranks among the poorest district in the state with 86.9 percent of students qualifying as low-income, and nearly a quarter still learning English.
The turnaround, according to Chester, will not happen overnight. The commissioner said he expects the state to be involved, and the charter operators to be in place, for at least the next four to six years, and progress will be measured against goals for improved MCAS scores and a closing of the achievement gap with the state over five to seven years.