Lawrence Receiver On Plan To Improve School System

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The new receiver of the financially and educationally distressed Lawrence public schools laid out his turn-around plan Wednesday. Jeff Riley, a former administrator for the Boston Public Schools, says he wants reform in Lawrence to be bottom-up, not top-down.

WBUR's All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with Riley and asked him to describe what an ideal Lawrence public school would look like to him if his overhaul goes according to plan.

Jeff Riley: You know, a school might get together with its community and decide to increase the length of the school day or the school year. They might adopt hybrid learning over the summer, which incorporates high-quality enrichment with intensive academics. Parents will be more involved and engaged in the process — with homework and everything else. Test scores will rise. When the improvement is shown, as a district we want to acknowledge that improvement and then recognize them as an "earned autonomy" school. Now we're going to give them more discretion over what curriculum they use, how their staffing patterns are, how they use their budget, etcetera.

Sacha Pfeiffer: Are you confident that with the teachers, the principals, the administrators you have right now, you can do what you want to do? Do you have the right talent, the right staff?

I think we have some great people in Lawrence. Clearly, we have been making changes. We know that we need to improve the quality of the teaching force. We're going through a similar process with principals. We don't anticipate that everyone will be back. The receiver's review process finishes up in the next two weeks and we do anticipate folks will be terminated. We have seen already, I think, almost 20 retirements and resignations from people who decided that the process was not working with them and/or they weren't confident going forward.

You mentioned creating more instructional time, possibly in the form of a lengthened school day, just as you did at a middle school in Charlestown where you were principal. But, as you now, Boston's superintendent wants to do this and is getting huge push back from Boston teachers over how much they should be compensated for that extra time. How do you think you can make that work in Lawrence?

We've had some pretty productive conversations with the teachers' union up here. I believe deeply in increasing time for kids, but I don't believe in a one-size-fits-all model. So we're going to let schools, really working with parents and teachers, figure out what they think is the right amount of time necessary to get improvements with kids.

Do you see any way around paying teachers more for that extra time they put in?

I don't. When I was a principal, I was a principal at a school where people were paid at the hourly rate. I'm not sure that's sustainable or realistic. But I do believe that people should be compensated for extra time. That may be in the form of a stipend. Something needs to be done if we're going to ask people to work more hours.

Realistically, how long do you think it will take before you can tell whether or not you're making positive change?

I think, really, after year one we should have a pretty good idea of where we're going. One of our goals in the first year is to double the amount of schools that are closing the achievement gap. Within three years we're looking to jump from a low ranking of all gateway cities — currently we're 22 out of 24 — and we want to be within the top five.

Given what the demographics are in Lawrence — I mean, you have incredible poverty, you have a high school dropout rate of more than half, and a huge percentage of these students don't come from native English-speaking homes — are your goals unrealistic?

I don't think so. I happened to be principal of a school that was slated for shut-down where we had huge levels of poverty, high level of second language learning and special education. And within two years those students were performing on par with your average suburban kid.

Even if you were successful turning around one school, turning around an entire district is a much different challenge. Do you think that those two things are equal?

Well, as you know, I was an academic superintendent in Boston in charge of all the middle schools and K-to-8s, which is actually more children and more students than we have here in Lawrence, and during my tenure there, we actually met some pretty ambitious goals. So we believe we can get things done for kids.

Your plan also taps the resources of some charter schools. How would those partnerships work?

These schools have agreed to take the neighborhood kids; there will be no lottery. And they've also agreed to have the teachers be Lawrence teachers' union employees, which is a major concession. In exchange, they're going to take over the operation and functioning of the school to phase in their model, initially in one or two grades, and look at things like more time, data, curriculum. By phasing in, they're allowed to hire whoever they want. It could be people that they bring in from outside or it could be current staff members already on-site.

Four to five months into this new job, how daunted do you feel?

I don't feel daunted at all. I feel hopeful.

This program aired on May 30, 2012.

Headshot of Sacha Pfeiffer

Sacha Pfeiffer Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.



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