The Remaking of Lawrence Public Schools (Guest Blogger - Amy Berard)

Amy BerardAmy Berard is a graduate of Lawrence Public Schools, and taught there during the first three years of receivership.She still lives in the community, but now teaches in the nearby district of Lynn.

Berard first made national #edreform waves when she did a guest post for Edushyster titled "I Am Not Tom Brady."  She has since been featured in Education Week, the Washington Post, and on Diane Ravitch's legendary edu-blog. 

Perhaps most importantly, she's a proud #11FF and a Blue Cereal favorite. 

January gym members aren’t the only ones with their eyes on reform.

Since the Commonwealth of Massachusetts took over Lawrence Public Schools in 2012, the district has been under the watchful eye of not only Massachusetts, but also the nation. In 2014, both U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and AFT President, Randi Weingarten, paid a visit to Lawrence schools. In February of 2015, Time Union reported that Andrew Cuomo is using Lawrence as a model for education reform in New York.

This state receivership is certainly not short on attention or staff. This receivership is steered by a state-appointed receiver, a chief operating officer, a chief of staff, a deputy superintendent, an assistant superintendent, and a special assistant to the superintendent. During the first year of the recievership, more than $6 million was spent on salary increases at central office level. The chief of staff position was listed as having a salary of $115,000 in 2012, substantially more than that of the Lawrence mayor’s chief of staff, whose current salary is a mere $68,000. Despite the fact that these receivership positions are paid with public funds, it is unclear what many salaries of these positions are currently.

Lawrence, MA, is a city 30 miles northwest of Boston. It consists of 7 square miles with a population of approximately 77,000 people. Average household income is roughly $31,000 annually. 63% of students are economically disadvantaged. Over 30% of residents do not have a high school diploma. English is not the primary language of 70.4% of Lawrence students and 31% of students are English Language Learners.

The leadership of Lawrence’s schools and that of its city government share a history of instability, corruption, and public dissatisfaction. In 1998, District Superintendent James Scully was fired due to accusations of misuse of funds. In 2012, one of Scully’s successors - Wilfredo Laboy - was sentenced to jail for embezzlement. In the same year, the city’s mayor - William Lantigua - was under FBI investigation for misuse of public funds, a continuation of almost constant investigations into his behavior since his election in 2008.

There have been 2 recall petitions against the current mayor, Dan Rivera. In fact, every Lawrence mayor for approximately the last 15 years has been the subject of a recall petition.

Since the inception of the Lawrence receivership, one only has to visit the Massachusetts Department of Education website to see the effects the receivership has had on the staff and students.

The Valley Patriot reported, “Riley was hired by Education Commissioner {Mitchell Chester} with no experience in turning around a failing school system. He was given a three and a half year contract, at $198,000 per year with benefits and reimbursements to “turn around” the school district, yet there is no legal definition or policy outlining what specific goals must be met to for the schools to be considered “turned around.”

Prior to Lawrence, Riley had never served as a superintendent. His receivership has been marked by an increase in the hiring of inexperienced administrators and inexperienced teachers – many of whom had previous ties to Riley and came from areas outside of Lawrence and its surrounding Merrimack Valley area. These principals have been given wide autonomy to make decisions for their building and staff, which may be fine for an experienced school leader but potentially disastrous for the many with little or no prior experience in such positions.

The percentage of highly qualified teachers teaching core academic subjects in Lawrence went from 95.4% in 2012 to 87% in 2014. At the state level, that number went from 97.8% in 2012 to 95.4% in 2015. The loss has not been shared equally by all Lawrence schools. Guilmette Middle School, a Level 3 school among the lowest 20% of schools in the state, went from having 96.8% of core academic subjects taught by highly qualified teachers in 2012 to only 55.8% in 2014.

Given Receivership Riley’s past with Teach for America, it is perhaps not surprising that Lawrence teachers are becoming not only less qualified, but less experienced. Lawrence teachers under the age of 26 went from 6% in 2012 to 14% in 2015. The state average for teachers under the age of 26 went from 5% in 2012 to 6% in 2015. At Spark Academy, a Level 4 school among the lowest achieving and least improving schools in the state, 37% of teachers are under the age of 26.

The teacher retention rate in Lawrence Public Schools is indirectly proportionate to each year Receiver Riley is at the helm. For every year Riley has been in charge, the district retains less and less teachers. While the state average retention rate dipped slightly from 90.3% in 2012 to 89.9% in 2014, Lawrence’s teacher retention went from 81.6% in 2012 to 68% in 2014. International High School’s 2014 retention rate was 54%. The Business Management & Finance High School’s rate was 41.7%. The High School Learning Center managed 54.2% and Community Day Arlington a weak 59.1%.

Take a moment to imagine what it would be like for an academically struggling urban child to see an ever-growing sea of unfamiliar faces at their school year after year. Now imagine what it would be like for a child who speaks limited English or a student with a disability. What messages does this send to them?

Often urban students come to school for a sense of stability, structure, and community. With a declining teacher retention rate, Lawrence schools feel less and less like home for many students. A low teacher retention rate prevents teachers from becoming familiar to each other, the curriculum, the students, and the students’ families. Parents are not as likely to participate in school events when they have not developed a relationship with the school community.

The implication is that those most in contact with these students on a daily basis are only there temporarily.

Lawrence has very few teachers living in Lawrence teaching in Lawrence. Ironically, many qualified faculty members who actually live in the community have been let go with no more explanation than that they’re “not a good fit” – a phrase many will recognize as common reformer code for “asking too many questions” or “challenging too many decisions which impact their kids.”

Judging from the annually decreasing retention rate, few teachers seem to be “a good fit” for the new Leadership Cabinet of which Receivership Riley is quite proud. Members are chosen by administrators, leaving non-favored teachers without a means to voice concerns without professional retaliation.

This past summer, the Massachusetts Board of Education held a special meeting with Riley because they received a number of complaints from teachers about the teacher evaluation process being unfair. In some cases, evaluations did not occur at all. Since pay increases at a certain level are tied to performance evaluations, this is particularly problematic.

In 2012, Lawrence was labeled chronically underperforming. In 2015, while Lawrence has seen some growth, it is still labeled chronically underperforming. While some schools are held up as evidence the receivership is working, many others have shown little or no improvement. A few have become worse.

Although initially a three-year plan, the receivership has been extended another three years. Let’s hope those three years bring with them more stability for students and teachers - as well as a strong plan for transitioning back to local control.

You can follow Amy Berard on Twitter at @1amyberard

Lawrence School

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