I RECENTLY READ Jim Stergios’s critique of the approach that the Lawrence Public School system has taken to reforming the once failing district. He argued that instead of working with the unions to make the sweeping reforms we’ve witnessed over the past three years, the Lawrence school system should have instead chosen to fully “charterize” the entire district. This would include firing all teachers in the district and making them reapply for their jobs, as well as disbanding the school committee. I strongly disagree.
As state representative and then as state senator, I represented the city of Lawrence in the Massachusetts State House for 17 years. After watching years of continued failure in the schools, with dismal test scores, high dropout rates, and far too few high school seniors going on to college, I can say with confidence that I’m encouraged to see the Lawrence Public School system heading in the right direction.
MCAS scores are up; since the receivership was put in place, the percentage of students scoring proficient or above on the math portion of the MCAS increased dramatically, from 26 to 44 percent. The graduation rate for Lawrence High School is closing in on 70 percent, and the number of seniors going on to pursue higher education is on the rise.
At the center of this impressive turnaround is Superintendent Jeff Riley, who came to Lawrence in 2012 after the school system was put into state receivership and a “Lawrence Turnaround Plan” was created by the Massachusetts Department of Education. Jeff is a visionary leader in education, one who isn’t afraid to try new things and is deeply devoted to putting students before all else.
Given the chaotic blame game that had taken place for years prior to the receivership, those of us helping with the transition thought the strategy during the first few years of the turnaround should be to block out the noise so Jeff could just do the job at hand. Jeff expanded on this vision, however, and it has paid off in dividends.
From day one, he began outreach to community organizations, understanding that his role as superintendent stretched far beyond the public school system itself. His recent vision to extend the school day in Lawrence involved recruiting community partners to provide enrichment activities, which saved costs by not having to hire teachers and staff to run additional activities and lessons in house. This decision also created and strengthened bonds between schools and the surrounding community, providing students with a network of support and enriching civic life in the process.
Jeff has continued in this spirit of collaboration by engaging with teachers, having recently negotiated a new contract with the union that gives teachers a direct voice in decision making, while creating pay incentives based on performance rather than seniority.
Jeff is known for saying that “90 percent of the teachers, in my opinion, were great, good or working hard to improve, and I can work with those kind of people.” He leveraged the knowledge and lived experiences of those 90 percent of teachers, creating a teacher leadership team in each school to work with principals on changes to curriculum and other suggestions for improvement.
With all this progress, it is also important to remember that real, lasting change can take time. I remember speaking at an event about the Lawrence Turnaround Plan at the Harvard Kennedy School with Jeff in late 2013. While talking to students – some of whom were former teachers – about the incredible changes taking place in Lawrence, I also said that we couldn’t expect to win every year. While everything has looked promising so far, some years there won’t be growth.
Managing expectations is important and can be challenging work, but we can’t let the inevitable negativity detract from the very real progress that has been made, in tangible ways like test scores and graduation rates, and in many more subtle ways like the partnerships and community strengthened under Jeff’s leadership.
While some may want to see change happening even faster, the receivership has been a huge success thus far, and Jeff’s commitment to collaboration has strengthened the city of Lawrence in ways an MCAS score will never reveal. The city took brave steps forward, learning from the best teachers about what was working and introducing bold new initiatives, including charter school partnerships and other collaborations. Throughout it all, Jeff has done the right thing by focusing on what matters: our kids.
Barry Finegold is a founding partner of Dalton & Finegold and the former state senator from the Second Essex & Middlesex District.