For Southbridge schools, a long slog with some glimmers of hope 

IS HE BUILDING a sand castle or something closer to a medieval castle, with a sturdy foundation that can stand for years? 

That’s how Jeffrey Villar framed the challenge of developing plans to improve the long-struggling Southbridge public schools. One of the lowest performing districts in the state, the system was put into state receivership in 2016, and Villar is the the state-appointed leader in charge of getting the district on track.  

In a presentation on Tuesday to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Villar said every year he and his leadership “build what we consider to be very elaborate plans. We think we’re going to solve the problems that we have identified.” The question, he said, becomes whether, like an elaborate sand castle, the plans look impressive but are soon reduced to a sand pile or can “stand the test of time much like a medieval castle.” 

It doesn’t actually take long after the start of a school year, he said, for time to begin to render a verdict. 

“What I tell my team now is, things get real in November,” Villar told the board. “By November is when we really know whether or not those plans are working.” 

The overarching changes Villar has implemented are aligning the district’s math and English curriculum with state standards and adding lots of social-emotional support services, including with outside partners, to help address behavioral issues.

Progress on student achievement has been halting, at best. Just 12 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 scored at the level of meeting or exceeding expectations on the most recent English MCAS exam. For math, the figure was just 10 percent. 

Southbridge students face lots of demographic hurdles linked with low achievement. Ninety percent of the students are classified as high need, a measure that combines low-income students, English learners, and other variables. Hispanic students now make up 65 percent of the small district of 2,200 pupils. 

But Villar pointed to some positive data on student growth, which measures the progress students are making, regardless of the baseline starting point. Among a set of 15 comparison districts – largely low-income Gateway Cities – Southbridge 8th grade students had the highest growth scores in math on the most recent MCAS. 

What’s more, it’s not just a welcome surprise that has district officials saying, “Wow, look at that nice bump,” said Villar. “We know the curricular changes that are happening and the specific work the teachers are doing in the 8th grade cohort that have led to closing these gaps. Now we’re trying to replicate that in other grade levels. That’s a light into our future.” 

The district has also seen a dramatic decrease in student suspensions at its middle school, where the number of out-of-school suspension days has fallen from 786 in 2018-19 to 114 in 2021-22. “We know suspension as a punishment is ineffectual,” said Villar, who said there have been dramatic improvements in the school climate. 

A recent national study of state takeovers of school districts concluded that there was no consistent evidence of student achievement gains from the intervention. Though Southbridge has yet to show big academic improvement under receivership, even some local officials there have said the move was necessary to stabilize a district that saw seven superintendents cycle in and out in the five years before the state takeover. 

“The climate and culture shift has definitely gone toward the positive side,” Southbridge School Committee chair Andrew Murch said earlier this year.

State board of education member Darlene Lombos raised the question at Tuesday’s meeting of when receivership will end. “What’s the endgame? What’s success?” she asked Villar. 

The state receivership was recently extended for another three years, but Villar said the plan includes discussion with residents about a possible return to local control. 

“My job is to work myself out of a job,” he said. “That’s how I would view the job and that’s what I signed up for.” But Villar returned to his opening framing on the importance of first establishing sustainable systems to drive improvement. 

“I would feel horrible if I walk away and a year later we’re back to where we started,” he said.  



Gold standard: The Department of Correction and the US Justice Department reach a sweeping settlement on reforms to mental health services in prisons. US Attorney Rachael Rollins said the changes will make Massachusetts the “gold standard” for prison care. Read more.

Criminal justice critique: On the first day of a two-day Judiciary Committee hearing, lawmakers and advocates slam the Baker administration for failing to properly implement the 2018 criminal justice reform law and for failing to appear and answer questions. Read more.

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