Here’s how Massachusetts helped one troubled school district improve

Elementary students from this Massachusetts community can be found on Fridays learning to record music; do yoga, karate or ballet; design cartoons on computers; and row a shell on a nearby river.

No, this is not a well-to-do community, where extracurriculars are integrated into the lives of many children.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

Elementary students in Lawrence learn karate.

This is Lawrence – one of the poorest communities in the state – where the average household earns just $35,000 a year, one-quarter of families are living in poverty and one-in-eight people are unemployed.

It’s also the site of the state’s first school district takeover under a new law passed in 2010 – which, among other things, paved the way for longer school days so students have time for extracurriculars.

In 2012, Boston Magazine labeled this once booming mill town the “City of the Damned” and “the most godforsaken place in Massachusetts.” City schools for years struggled to improve, and other problems plagued the city government. At that time just 41 percent of students were at grade level in English and 28 percent in math – rates that had been largely the same for years. One in 10 high school students would drop out, and less than half of the students who started high school would earn a diploma in four years.

Now, 21 percent more students are at grade level in math, 10 percent more in English. Dropout rates have shrunk to one in 24 high school students and graduation rates are 19 percentage points higher.

When Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts’ education commissioner at the time, asked his state board in 2011 to take over the district and give wide authority to a state-appointed receiver to make changes without the approvals typically required from locally elected school boards or unions, he said he was doing so “from a bias that supports local control.”

“It is my calculus, however, that short of receivership the likelihood of accelerated educational attainment for the youth of Lawrence is slim,” Chester said then, arguing that the state takeover of the 14,000-student district “will enable us to implement an aggressive agenda aimed at transforming Lawrence into a district where strong educational outcomes are the rule and no longer the exception.”

But state takeovers of struggling districts have had unimpressive results in improving academic achievement throughout the country, which may be why places like Connecticut have taken a more cautious approach than Massachusetts.

“States have had pretty abysmal records for doing takeovers,” said Paul Reville, who was Massachusetts’ secretary of education under a Democratic governor at the time of the state takeover in Lawrence and is now a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. “We have turned the corner on that.”

Massachusetts has a decades-long history of embracing bold education reforms, as evidenced by a 1993 so-called “Grand Bargain” that funneled more than $2 billion in additional state aid into public schools and, in return, raised expectations for what students must know to be considered at grade level – and to earn a high school diploma. After those changes, Massachusetts moved to the top of the national rankings on the “Nation’s Report Card” for achievement by students from low-income families.

Reville, also a key player in getting the 1993 reforms approved, says the “light-touch approach” that historically has been used for state interventions has been the reason for poor results. “This stronger set of powers has made a big difference.”

But in Connecticut, no law exists that allows the state education board or the commissioner to use their judgment to appoint a new leader for a district when appropriate. Instead, state legislators are the decision-makers, and they decide on a case-by-case basis whether circumstances require them to pass a special law so the education department can appoint a new leader in a specific district, and what authority they will have.

“You have a State Board of Education that’s largely a symbolic board,” said Mark McQuillan, who served as Connecticut’s education commissioner until 2011 and who, before that, was deputy commissioner in Massachusetts. “That’s not true in Massachusetts. They protect the sovereignty of the state board.”

When Connecticut lawmakers have allowed for a state-appointed leader to intervene, they have given that person less authority than the Massachusetts model provides. In the Bay State, the receiver replaces the locally elected board and has all the power the local board once held. The receiver can fire existing staff, make the school day longer and alter parts of existing union contracts.

In two of the three recent cases in which Connecticut legislators put a new leader — called a special master — in place, lawmakers left the locally elected school board and all its authority intact. In all three districts – Windham, New London and Winchester – the new leader had to abide by existing union contracts. Last year in Bridgeport top state education officials turned down a former superintendent’s plea to provide training for her rancorous school board, a move that could have paved the way for deeper state involvement.

“We don’t have the capacity to do anything unless the district and the community wants us there,” Dianna Wentzell, Connecticut’s current education commissioner, said in explaining why the state shouldn’t come in without strong support locally. Wentzell visited schools in Lawrence last year to better understand their approach.

“We don’t have an automatic trigger for state receivership, but it is one of our menu of possible interventions and supports. We can seek that authority on an as-needed basis,” she said during an interview. “We have been really fortunate in that we’ve been able to gain the statutory authority when we’ve needed it. That seems to make sense. In Connecticut, people really like their decisions to be as local as possible.”

Asked if the state-appointed leaders need more authority to make changes to existing union contracts, Wentzell said. “There are times that I think greater flexibility can help a district improve.”

Lawrence’s receiver, Jeff Riley, agrees, even though he only took some of the actions could have under his authority.

“Our law gives significant authorities to make rapid changes,” he said during an interview. “It kind of gives you a blank slate to start from, and I think that’s an important thing… I think it would be disingenuous of me to say that people knowing the authority I had didn’t have an impact, and that it somehow didn’t mean anything. I think it did. I think people were more likely to want to work together, to want to come up with a more hearty intervention.”

Reville also points to the importance such authority has had in the places Massachusetts has stepped in, including Holyoke and Southbridge.

“You don’t have to use the hammer, but the threat that a hammer existed was enough to move the various parties to a positive place,” he said. “You need the right tools – and that’s a matter of state policy. It’s not a local matter.”

What Lawrence did

It’s been almost six years since the state appointed Riley to take over the district.

Initially there was fear in some quarters that the takeover would lead to a “Katrina moment” for Lawrence, referring to New Orleans, which swept away its traditional neighborhood public school system after Huricane Katrina and replaced it almost entirely with charter schools. It’s an option Riley had, but he decided to hand over only a select few of the district’s 26 schools to charter school operators. He also required them to enroll whomever lived in the surrounding neighborhood and not require students to win a lottery to attend.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

Elementary students from Lawrence, Mass. design a structure with straws and

It’s one of many examples where Riley opted not to use some of his wide-ranging powers.

Instead he worked with the local teachers’ union to negotiate a new contract that overhauled how teachers would be paid for extended hours and replaced a pay system that was based only on how many years someone had been teaching and whether they had a master’s degree.

“There is no silver bullet – but it is usually about having good teachers and more time,” said Riley. “I think doing things with people versus doing things to people is really important.”

The collaboration that ultimately prevailed between teachers and district leaders has been praised by the leader of a national teachers’ union – the American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten – and the leader of the city’s teachers’ union.

“We are in a better place than we were in 2011, and we are going forward,” said Francis McLaughlin, the president of the Lawrence Teachers’ Union. “We did it together… All the collaboration that is being touted across the country as the reason for our success, it’s true.”

But, he acknowledges the role the hammer played.

“We didn’t really have a choice,” he said.

Riley did use his authority to shrink central office staff by one-third, replace half the principals and dismiss 10 percent of the teachers. When Riley required all elementary and middle schools to extend their school year by at least 200 hours, he left it up to local principals and teachers to craft plans for how the extra time would be spent.

He also had more money from the state and federal government to help pave the way. The state reports that between fiscal 2012 and 2016 spending increased for city students by $46 million – a 25 percent increase in aid. As student enrollment increased, the additional funding has meant that per-student spending increased by $1,856 – a 14 percent rise. but still slightly below the average per pupil spending in Massachusetts. Inflation increased by 5 percent during that time.

Riley also hired a high school dropout who has since turned her life around to find and re-enroll those who had left school. And Leldamy Correra is meticulous – one time she recognized the name of the cashier serving her at Burger King as someone on her “must find” list. She got the young mom back in school, where she eventually earned a diploma. New software allows her to track how the hundreds of dropouts her team has gotten back into school are doing, what credits those on her must-find list need to graduate and what programs have room to accommodate them if they return.

“There are so many factors that can lead to a kid leaving school,” she explains. “We try and work around them.”

More time

At Gerard A. Guilmette Elementary School in Lawrence, an additional hour was tacked onto every day for students and staff. At other schools as many as 500 hours were added to the school year.

Like all the other schools in the district, Guilmette decided to use part of that extra time to plan lessons while students got more physical and artistic activities added to their day.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirorr.org

Fourth graders at Guilmette Elementary School in Lawrence show off their dance moves.

“We don’t want them sitting all day. We want the oxygen moving to their brains,” Cyndie Bennett, the assistant principal said as she watched a weekly dance performance each grade performs.

In addition to the 45 minutes students get each day for things like dance and music classes, they also get to spend two hours at the Boys & Girls Club down the street, where they get to pick from about 20 activities ranging from cooking to Karate.

“Students are finding their niche because we have all this additional time,” said Cheryl Corrigan, the principal of the school. “A student may come to school every day knowing that she is really strong in chorus, and that builds her confidence.”

Riley pushed for some of the time to be used on enrichment activities since, he said, districts too often have focused their limited time on the academic subjects. Essentially what was measured on the state tests was what was taught.

“With this hyper-focus on test scores, the availability of arts and enrichment waned,” he said. “A kid getting up and being in a play in front of a thousand people to act or sing a song may not show up on a test, but it shows up in life. Being able to speak in front of large groups, being able to work collaboratively, those are important skills. Also, we want our kids to have the same experience that I believe wealthy suburban kids have.”

While students take part in these extra offerings, teachers can plan their lessons, observe high-performing teachers to fine-tune their techniques and participate in professional development. The reorganized school also now has one special education teacher for each grade –  an unprecedented level of support for students with learning or physical disabilities. This was aimed at buoying up teachers in a school with so many high-need students.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

Elementary students find their zen during a yoga class.

“We are building teacher capacity,” explained Corrigan. “Having that extra time made it possible to give teachers planning every single day.”

The extra time also is helping increase the time students spend learning core academic subjects — especially those in which their performance is weak — during the now seven-hour, 40-minute school day. In addition, the district began offering “Acceleration Academies” to provide extra help in small groups during summer and winter breaks. About 40 percent of students participated during the 2013-14 school year.

Research has shown the approach has paid off. (See here and here.)

The longer day draws a mixed reaction from teachers.

On one hand, teachers interviewed were grateful for additional time to plan lessons and work with other staff during the school day. On the other hand they felt compensation for the longer day was not sufficient or competitive with that in nearby districts.

“It lightened the load for sure,” Kerry McIntosh, a third grade teacher at Guilmette who is in her 23rd year of teaching, said of the amount of work she has to take home. But, she added, “If you could work an hour less for more money, why wouldn’t I?”

And then there are prevailing family reasons, as well.

“A lot of teachers are torn; they want an extra hour with their children,” McIntosh said.

Local union leaders explain the stipends teachers receive for the longer day, which range from $1,500 to $3,000, often don’t tally up to minimum wage for the additional 200 to 500 additional hours they work.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

Students learn to cook a pasta dish.

The compensation plan is breaking the model, says McLaughlin, the local union president.

“Great idea. The only problem is that they are unable to pay for it. It’s unsustainable,” he said.

He points to the extremely high turnover rate in the district. Some 270 new unionized staff started in the district this year – 20 percent of total unionized staff.

Also potentially contributing to the high turnover is that teachers max out how much they can make working in Lawrence at $68,500 after six years.

Riley did increase starting pay for new teachers, and the district helps students pay for some of their master’s degree in an effort to be more competitive.

“My pay was greater when I came in than many of my friends who are teachers,” said Emily Barrett, a first grade teacher in her fourth year. The district will pay for about 15 percent of her master’s.

But these teachers explain they are staying.

“This school gets it right,” said Macintosh. “I love what I get to do with the children.”

Read the entire series by clicking here.

The Mirror’s exploration of ways to close persistent gaps in educational achievement is supported in part by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network and the Nellie Mae Foundation. Click here to view more of the projects they have funded. The Connecticut Mirror retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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