A FEW YEARS AGO, Lawrence’s schools were considered some of the worst in the state.  Only half of their students were finishing high school.  Test scores were abysmal.  Beyond the school walls, there was distress in the community: more than a quarter of the residents were living in poverty. The state appointed a receiver, Jeff Riley, to run the schools in 2012.

There has been much press about Riley’s package of reforms, which include giving school leaders more power and resources relative to the central office, extending the school day, running intensive academic programs over vacations, creating a career ladder for teachers, replacing low-performing teachers, and inviting charter school organizations to manage some schools.

Lawrence schools receiver Jeff Riley.
Lawrence schools receiver Jeff Riley.

What has received less coverage is Riley’s partnership with community organizations.  This change is worth watching.

It is far from obvious that when you take charge of a troubled school system, you should spend your limited time building partnerships with non-profits that have their own missions, issues, and personalities.  It could be a distraction from the time you need to spend with personnel inside the system.

Yet, one of the first things Riley did in Lawrence was pull together a “speed dating” event for school principals and community non-profit leaders, where participants engaged in multiple five-minute, one-to-one meetings.  Riley called it an assets assessment.  After the event, he began hosting regular meetings with the non-profit leaders.

Riley’s vision was to extend the school day in Lawrence, and to recruit community partners to provide enrichment activities for many of the new hours, as opposed to hiring teachers and staff to run additional activities and lessons in house.  Riley’s effort mobilized many organizations, and led to a pioneering effort by school and civic leaders.

The Boys and Girls Club’s shiny state-of-the-art facility in Lawrence used to sit empty during the day until school got out.  Now, six schools bus students to the club during school hours for the kids to enjoy swimming, karate, drumming, cooking, basketball, dance, computers, creative writing, and art.  Kids from another set of schools go to the Lawrence YMCA, which also sends its instructors into the schools to provide enrichment on site.  The Y used to serve only 140 Lawrence kids after school; now it works with thousands of Lawrence students.

Other organizations, such as Groundwork Lawrence, send instructors into the schools.  Groundwork Lawrence has been re-developing polluted lands along the historic canals into parks, getting the community out to enjoy the parks, and educating Lawrence kids about the local ecosystems.  With funding support from foundations, Groundwork Lawrence had developed curriculum, but Heather McMann, the director, explains that she only had “small pockets of money” to run the programs.  Now Groundwork Lawrence’s teachers take hundreds of students outside during the school day to collect bugs, identify plants and animals, garden, and build campfires and shelters.

Many of the non-profit leaders now providing enrichment in extended day programs describe how they had developed curriculum with foundation support, but did not have the capacity to reach kids on a large scale.  Foundations supported the YMCA’s collaboration with a local professor to develop curriculum for measuring steps and heartrate during active play and using MCAS-tested math skills to analyze the data generated.  The Boys and Girls Club used a grant from The New Balance Foundation to develop a program on healthy living, and grants from Maker Education and Intel to create an engaging computer course.  The Community Group used foundation funding to develop a mock trial program for fourth graders, and now it brings students, during the school day, to the district court to mock-try civil cases with real judges presiding.  Each of these innovative programs, many addressing the social and emotional development of the students, has been scaled up.

Jessica Andors, the director of Lawrence Community Works, said the school turnaround effort is a key moment in time for the city. Participating in Riley’s meetings, she recognized a window of opportunity to organize residents, and parents in particular, for deep change in the city.  “We were talking about what are the root causes of some of the challenges that Lawrence faces,” she said. “Why were the schools failing? Why are our kids failing? Of course, the major problem is poverty.” 

Lawrence Community Works and the Lawrence Public Schools together launched a coalition effort called the Lawrence Working Families Initiative to increase employment among parents.  The initiative took first prize for $700,000 from the Federal Reserve’s Working Cities Challenge to implement its plan. The coalition includes Northern Essex Community College, the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center, the Valley Works Career Center, the Mayor’s Health Taskforce, many other organizations, and about 20 major employers in the region. They opened a resource center with a full-time director and family coach to provide vocational support for parents in the school’s main administrative building.  Andors says: “If we were able to recreate the schools not only as a hub for academic excellence, but also for family access to education and opportunity, that would be an amazing impact on poverty and the city, and on the goals of the turnaround.”

In practice, turning around a city in distress may be even more difficult than turning around a failing school system.  It is noteworthy, though, how the receiver in Lawrence is strengthening the capacity of local organizations as a part of the school turnaround.  Heather McMann at Groundwork Lawrence said she has never seen partnerships like this before in the city.  “There have always been so many talented and dedicated community leaders running programs to benefit Lawrence kids and their families,” she said. “Now they are working and innovating together with school administrators, on a large scale, to help the kids and community thrive.”

Lawrence is a demographically young city, with nearly one in five of the residents attending a Lawrence school, and a large percent of the residents affiliated with the schools as parents or grandparents of students.  In this way, using the schools as a vehicle for community change appears to have some merit.

The challenge for running schools in cities like Lawrence is not only to deliver high quality educational instruction, as school leaders are tasked to do in any district, but to educate students who arrive at school with a special set of challenges.  Many of the students live in poverty.  Many do not speak English.  Crime rates in their neighborhoods are high. Their parents may be unemployed, or working three jobs.  Many students experience stress, trauma, and neglect that undermines their ability to focus on lessons.

Societal change can take time.  The receivership is set to end in 2018.  While early indicators point to promising results for the Lawrence effort, it will take time to know if the turnaround will deliver lasting results in student performance, either modest or impressive, and whether the efforts to build greater capacity in the community to support kids and their families will lead to a broader revitalization of the city.  In the meantime, Lawrence’s leaders are all around the table for this collaborative effort.  They are pioneers, and we should learn from their work.

Amy Dain is a consultant to MassINC working on a series of case studies on collaborative leadership in the Gateway Cities. The case study on Lawrence can be read here. MassINC publishes CommonWealth magazine. 

For a different view of Jeff Riley’s efforts in Lawrence, read this opinion piece by Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute.