Lawrence Eagle-Tribune: Lawrence school reforms must target all students, not a select few

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Jim Stergios and Jamie Gass
The Eagle-Tribune

In January, a state receiver took over the City of Lawrence’s district schools after more than a decade of failure. The takeover represents a “Katrina moment” for Massachusetts — a one-time opportunity for bold action that changes the way we look at school reform in our urban districts.

When the entire cities of Chelsea and Springfield (not just the schools) were in free-fall, the commonwealth tested new, large-scale reforms that rapidly brought municipal expenses in line with revenues. These included folding pension funds into the overarching state system and getting collective bargaining under control.

In recent years, those reforms became widespread in cities and towns across Massachusetts.

But even the threat of Chelsea and Springfield going bankrupt was less dire than the state of Lawrence’s schools. The future economic and social viability of the city is premised on how today’s students are doing. Without fixing its schools, the city can’t begin to address crime, rampant poverty and an unemployment rate double that of the commonwealth.

Lawrence is not only among the lowest-performing school districts in Massachusetts, but its students are in worse shape than their counterparts in New Orleans were prior to the infamous hurricane. Half of Lawrence’s high school students don’t graduate within four years. Nearly two-thirds of the class that entered high school in 2009 had already failed at least one class by the middle of that academic year.

State receiver Jeffrey Riley comes into a difficult situation. The district’s previous superintendent has been found guilty of embezzlement and possession of alcohol on school property. The district he leaves behind performs dismally and has made little meaningful progress. This year, increases in the state funding that accounts for almost all of the district’s revenue will again be consumed by pay hikes negotiated prior to the state’s takeover of the schools.

Riley knows that the commonwealth’s response must demonstrate urgency, and he has begun by firing poor-performing teachers and announcing that several successful Massachusetts charter schools will partner with the city’s district schools to drive change.

Lawrence’s own Community Day Charter Public School, whose students scored first in Massachusetts in sixth grade math last year, and Unlocking Potential, a school turnaround organization, will each partner with an underperforming school to provide managerial oversight, revamp programs and infuse successful instructional techniques. Boston’s MATCH Charter Public School will provide 50 tutors to two Lawrence schools and Phoenix Charter Academy in Chelsea will launch an alternative, in-district high school that targets dropouts.

The partnership is a step in the right direction. But it is not at the
scale to lift the Lawrence schools to an acceptable level.

In Chelsea, the commonwealth brought Boston University in to take over the schools. This outside-the-box thinking proved contagious.

A few years later, state leaders, spearheaded by Chelsea state Sen. Tom Birmingham,passed the 1993 Education Reform Act. It introduced charter public schools, high standards and accountability in return for a massive funding increase. In a little more than a decade, Massachusetts became the nation’s public education leader. By 2007, its students were competitive with the world’s best in math and science.

The reforms thus far put in place are unlikely to have nearly that type of impact. The charter school partnerships, for example, will benefit 1,000 to 1,500 of the district’s 13,000 students.

In 2010, the commonwealth raised the cap on the number of students who can attend charter schools in Lawrence and several other low-performing districts. But the increase only made opportunity available to 360 more students.

Compare these responses to post-Katrina New Orleans. In 2005, less than 5 percent of the city’s students attended charters. Today, the number hovers around 80 percent. Between 2006 and 2011, New Orleans reduced the proficiency gap between the city’s students and state averages by 56 percent.

Moments like the state takeover of Lawrence’s schools can shape a new generation of policies and inspire a new generation of policy makers. But to do that, and to get the city of Lawrence back on its feet, we must act swiftly and boldly to enact far-reaching reforms that impact all of the district’s 13,000 students, not just a fortunate few.

Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute. Jamie Gass directs the institute’s Center for School Reform.