The state receiver for the troubled Lawrence Public Schools announced sweeping changes to the system Wednesday in an effort to quickly improve student achievement.
Last fall, after decades of below-average performance, the state took over the school system and appointed the receiver to run it. The former superintendent is in jail for embezzlement.
Lawrence students have performed below the state average for decades and only 40 percent graduate from high school. The new Lawrence receiver, Jeff Riley, has a long to-do list that reads like most school reform menus: build a culture of high expectations, extend the school day, hire great staff. But Riley said this reform will be different because he’s letting individual schools make many of the decisions.
"This is a radical shift in school reform efforts nationwide, which historically attempted a top-down fix," Riley said.
Riley said he wants to reduce the role of the central office and give the power back to principals. They will decide how to use extended learning time and whom to hire and fire. The schools whose students perform well will earn more autonomy.
Lawrence will also turn to charter schools for help, inviting four charter organizations into the district. One will provide tutoring. One will open a new alternative high school to re-engage students who have dropped out. Another will take over a middle school and a fourth will manage an elementary school.
Riley said the partnership is unique.
"A few charter schools have agreed to come in and not impose a lottery, they are willing to take the neighborhood schools and they are willing to be represented by the Lawrence Teachers’ Union," Riley said. "So it’s a real interesting moment in [education] reform today."
Typically, teachers in charter schools are not unionized, and districts are reluctant to embrace charters. The Lawrence Teachers' Union said it works well with Riley, but union President Frank McLaughlin said he’s unsure about more charter schools.
"I understand the charters are coming in," McLaughlin said. "It’s a concern about the management of the school system. For you to have a charter school, or several charter school operations coming in to manage your schools, that's concerning to us."
Riley said his only concern is the children and how to bring up their achievement quickly. This is a challenge in gateway cities such as Lawrence, where nearly one-quarter of the kids in schools speak English as their second language.
"In year one we want to double the number of schools closing the achievement gap," Riley said. "Within three years we are going to move to within the top five of all gateway cities in Massachusetts. Currently we are 22."
Finally, Riley promises that "within five to seven years we plan to close the achievement gap completely within the state in English language, math and arts."
All of this has to happen without any additional funding. Already Lawrence spends $13,900 per student, about $1,000 more than the state average. Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said to find money they will be looking at everything from facilities to salaries.
"We have a high-need district, students who need a lot of support to be successful in their education and a low-wealth district, a district that doesn’t have a lot of fiscal means to support that, so we need to be very deliberate about looking at how we are using current revenue," Chester said.
Chester said he expects the state to be involved in the Lawrence schools for several years.
This program aired on May 30, 2012.