BOSTON — A 40-year-old Boston Public Schools administrator has been given the task of trying to turn around the Lawrence public school system, which is so troubled that it was recently placed in state receivership. As the system’s new receiver, Jeffrey Riley will tackle a chronic student absence problem, dismal standardized test scores, and the lowest high school graduation rate in the state.
Riley, who starts his new job Tuesday, spoke with WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer about the road ahead in Lawrence.
Sacha Pfeiffer: In many ways you are taking on the key question in public education, which is: how do we help failing urban schools? There seems to be no one formula yet. What’s your answer to that?
Jeffrey Riley: Urban education is the civil rights issue of our time. With the adoption of standards in Massachusetts in 1993 and MCAS testing, we really saw that our kids in urban areas really weren’t being serviced as well as they could be. We saw these huge achievement and opportunity gaps exist, and it was a real eye opener. But I think what we have to really start looking at is this is going to be a community effort. This is a going to take everyone in the city, from the school committee to the mayor to the parents to the civic and businesses leaders, who are really going to have to put their foot down and say, “Enough. It’s time to do this and do this well for children.”
When you look at the Lawrence schools, what exactly do you see in terms of problems that need to be fixed, and what has made it so hard to fix them so far?
I think there’s been a lot said and written about the Lawrence Public Schools and I’m trying to hold off any judgements until I actually get in there and do a deep assessment. And while we will make change, and bold change at that, I think it’s critical to take the time to really understand the functioning of the system and the individual schools.
As you know, you’re walking into a highly political situation in Lawrence. The previous superintendent was fired for fraud and embezzlement, and the current mayor is extremely controversial; there’s been a drive to force him out of office. Do you expect the messy politics of Lawrence to be an additional hurdle in what you’re trying to accomplish?
I don’t think the politics are going to be a problem. Because of the unique nature of the role, I work for the state and I report directly to the [education] commissioner, and I have the autonomy and the authority of both the school committee and the superintendent. I think there’s a real channel there to get things done and to focus on what’s most important, which is the children.
You have a reputation as a school administrator as being an effective turnaround guy. What are some of the steps have you taken in the past to improve struggling schools that you think might work in Lawrence? I know, for example, that you lengthened the school day at a middle school in Charlestown in a way that’s now viewed as having improved that school tremendously.
I’m a firm believer that more time with good teachers is really the key to closing achievement gaps and increasing student achievement. There are other gaps that exist — what I would call opportunity gaps, which are the high-quality enrichment experiences that suburban kids often get, whether that’s doing musical theater or playing on the football team or doing the debate league. What I found when I was a principal is that by providing kids with a full academic experience, they can really flourish and be engaged in the work.
The commissioner has promised no mass firings, but sometimes an infusion of new people with new ideas and new experiences and new attitudes is required for a radical turnaround. How will you balance being humane and not worsening morale by drastically cleaning house with clearing out dead wood that maybe should be cleared out?
It’s all about the assessment that’s going to happen in the first few months on the job. I’ve been the principal of a school where we didn’t have to counsel out any teachers. On the other hand, in Boston we’ve seen schools and principals that have decided that teachers need to go and we need to bring in an infusion of talent. I can’t tell you right now what needs to take place in individual schools. What I can tell you is we will take whatever action is necessary to provide a great education for kids going forward. And I think I have a reputation for fairness, but I also have a reputation for having high expectations — not just for students, but for teachers, as well.
The last school system in Massachusetts subject to a level of state involvement anywhere near this was Chelsea. In that case, the schools partnered with Boston University for an attempted turnaround and it took BU about two decades to say it had accomplished what it set out to do. How long do you think it will take you to achieve what you’d like to achieve in Lawrence?
I think it’s a little unclear at this point. I could see this going anywhere from three to seven years, with really active focus on what has to happen and the changes that have to take place. I mean, I don’t think this is going to happen overnight. With that said, I think we can accelerate the progress so this is not a two-decades-long endeavor.