Thanks to Peter Cunningham for sharing this Education Week article with me about progress in Lawrence, MA, especially since I remember hearing about the beginning of the state take over when I worked with STAND MA and it’s hard to keep up with news all over the country these days.
He points out that it’s a good example of district administration and unions working together so I had to take a look.
The state take over or “turnaround plan” has several key points that matter to both unions and the pro-reform community:
- Strong district leader – Mr. Jeffrey Riley, a former principal and former chief innovation officer in the Boston public schools, as Lawrence district’s receiver. A very important ingredient is that the turnaround team approached the takeover with a “strong dose” of respect for the adults in the system.
“We did not start with the assumption that the adults were the problem,” Mr. Chester said. “We started with the assumption that the system as a whole was broken and needed to be restructured.”
[Principal Lennon] “He knows that [teachers] are the people doing the work every day, and they are the ones solving the problems,” she said of Mr. Riley. “And the fact that he could gather information from them, and say to them, ‘What are some ideas that you have at the school level that’s going to impact students?’ That’s a positive shift.”
- Expanded learning time – Schools added between 200-300 hours annually, allowing time for enrichment programs and interventions. Teachers got collaborative planning and professional-development time.
“Mr. Riley said the opportunities that children now have to engage in enrichment activities have been a critically important piece of the turnaround effort. Through partnerships with the Boys & Girls Club, the Merrimack Valley YMCA, and the district’s teachers, students are able to take classes in cooking, karate, theater, swimming, squash, and a host of other extracurricular activities they might not otherwise be exposed to.”
“Principal Colleen M. Lennon proudly watched over some of her young charges at the Emily G. Wetherbee School on a recent afternoon in this struggling city of 77,000, seeing students engage in activities that are a given in most middle- to upper-income communities. They were taking drumming lessons. Fingerknitting. Practicing cheerleading stands. Illustrating a short story. And making fruit salad in a class on healthy eating.”
“Ms. Lennon also credits professional development for teachers, giving them latitude to collaborate with their peers on classroom strategies, and creating leadership teams that rely on their expertise.”
“At UP Academy Leonard Middle School, Principal Komal Bhasin says the dedicated planning time that teachers get each Friday has been powerful. Working in cohorts, teachers spend 2½ hours on Fridays reviewing student data, revising curriculum, sharing successful teaching strategies, and setting goals for the school on a range of issues such as school climate or support for special education students.”
- Partnerships – The district partnered with charter-management organizations and the Lawrence teachers’ union to run schools. It worked with Boston-based Match Education to provide math tutoring to high school students.
“The district’s non-dogmatic view of who is best suited to run schools targeted for turnaround—charter-management organizations, the local teachers’ union, and the district itself are all operating schools in Lawrence—has also been a strength.”
“Mr. Riley has championed a governance model he calls “open architecture,” in which the district consists of a combination of charter-run schools and regular district schools. There is expanded autonomy at the school level and the central office’s role is curtailed.
“The problems in urban education are far too big for the civil war that’s going on out there today,” Mr. Riley said about the debate over charter versus district-run schools.
“We’ve created a small community where people have been willing to put aside their differences, work under this unified umbrella, and get results for kids,” he said.
An example of that “open architecture” system is evident in the district’s approach to turning around the low-performing Henry K. Oliver School. The Lawrence Teachers’ Union took over grades 1-5 and launched the Oliver Partnership School in August 2013, while the Boston-based UP Academy, a charter-management organization, took over grade 6. That new school is the UP Academy Oliver Middle School.”
- Data – Boston-based Achievement Network (ANet) has trained teachers and principals to analyze data to measure student progress and improve instruction.
“[Lawrence is] looking deeply at performance and data, and they are targeting interventions at the problems,” Ms. Yatsko said. “They are unleashing their professional staff in the buildings by providing them with autonomy and coupling it with supports.”
Under Mr. Riley, principals and teachers are expected to know the proficiency levels of every student in their schools, Ms. Lennon said. Students are also keenly aware of their scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, what they need to do to reach proficiency, and how much their schools are expected to grow annually, Ms. Lennon said.
- School autonomy and accountability – Successful principals got more authority over calendars, interim assessments, and staffing. Includes the charters, union run and traditional public schools.
An emphasis on creating and supporting strong school leaders; attracting and developing effective teachers; aligning resources to student and teacher needs; and providing both the funding and flexibility to school leaders to design programs that meet their school’s unique needs.
- Staffing – A new contract with the teachers’ union created career ladders for teachers and provided opportunities to earn more money based on proficiency, performance, and leadership roles. About 50 percent of principals, 20 percent of assistant principals, and 10 percent of teachers were replaced.
The contract approved a year later created career ladders for teachers and gave them opportunities to earn more money based on their performance and the leadership roles they embraced in their schools. And Mr. Riley insisted that all teachers, including those in charter-run schools, be members of the local union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.
- Increasing parental engagement—the district recently opened a resource center at one of the city’s old mills, where parents can get help finding jobs and housing—is also part of the turnaround strategy.
Funding might really be the interesting area or question for the future.
The district receives about 95 percent of its annual $190 million budget from the state, and that contribution level has not changed under the takeover.
In a report by Education Resource Systems they make a point that while cutting administrative costs, state funding has remained the same and many of the new reforms were funded by grants that will end. The question is will the district be able to maintain these new programs once the grants end? Will the state realize the importance of these programs and provide more funding?
LPS received substantial transition funding during the first three years of receivership. The highest level of funding was received in SY 2013–14, including more than $3 million in School Redesign Grants and more than $2 million in Massachusetts Race to the Top funds. Also in 2013–14, the district reduced central office expenses by $1.6 million and provided that funding directly to schools to finance reforms. Although the district has been able to reduce central office non-staff spending in the 2014–15 budget by an additional $5 million to help offset School Redesign Grants and Race to the Top funding as it expires, it is not enough to replace all of the transitional spending. Lawrence has a growing enrollment, which should provide for some increases in state funding over time. However, it will be critical to watch expenses closely to ensure that the funding needed to continue the reforms is available.
ERS also notes that while Lawrence is a relatively small school district, the concepts are scalable across districts:
Reform is scalable. While LPS is a relatively small urban district (only 28 schools) and had the advantage of transitional funding from the state and private funders, even the largest districts can likely make the same kind of changes in a subset of schools. Creating the conditions for rapid change—including the flexibilities, supports, and human capital changes that Lawrence made— in the worst-performing schools in a district build momentum by improving outcomes in those schools. The key is to use that success to pave the way for broadening those changes to other schools by working to change the structures and policies that will enable lasting improvement.
This story encourages me as GA is about to look at state take over of certain schools throughout GA, if the bill is ratified by voters in 2016. Look for my next post analyzing the district/union relationship throughout the state take over in Lawrence.