Not a true turnaround effort – Worcester Tech

Not a true turnaround effort – Worcester Tech

I’ve been meaning to write about my thoughts on Worcester Tech in Worcester, MA since last year when Obama gave the commencement speech. This month, an interview with the principal of Worcester Tech came across my twitter feed.  Here’s my thoughts on her interview, the school and what she didn’t say (or that the report did not print).

It’s a very cool school that has an incredible balance between academics and technical experience. Each week students rotate through academic and tech weeks for 90 tech days and 90 academic days. This model actual helps to demonstrate that my theory that you could have elective based classes instead of Math, Science, English, Social Studies and still teach the standards, concepts and skills. They have a great way of introducing students to all the tech disciplines and empowering them to make choices. There is virtually nothing like that in traditional schools. The school is a great opportunity to get a head start and build a great college application.
worcester tech logo


The principal says that the school used to be focused towards strictly students going into the workforce after high school. The test scores where falling and they were going to shut down the school. Instead they turned it around. There is just one item missing from this interview that brings more light to this situation.

Worcester Tech now has an application process. Here is the Application  and the Admission guidelines for the school.  I know this predicament well because I was a middle school guidance intern at a middle school in Worcester. The application requires data regarding grades, attendance, and behavior record. So who do you think is attending Worcester Tech?

In the past the admission requirements were probably weak if at all. That probably wasn’t the right method. But is this the correct method?

Let’s assume that a majority of non college attending kids went to the old school. They probably didn’t have good grades, or good attendance records, or  good behavior records. Those facts probably lead to the decline of the school. So when the “turned around” the school…..where did those students go?

They didn’t turnaround the school. They literally built a brand new different school. And it’s a great school. My two issues are these:

What happens to all the students who used to attend Worcester Tech? The only school in the city that could prepare them for a career after HS is only open to students with good grades, good attendance and good behavior. Basically, the kids who need a great school like this, likely are not getting admitted. This actually sounds like what most people think charter schools do – they selectively choose students and by doing so eliminate “unworthy” students. Most charter schools, through their choice of attendance zones operate in under served communities and through a lottery serve at risk students. But, I will ask again, What happens to the students who used to attend Worcester Tech?

Did you know that only 1/4th of Worcester HS graduating seniors attend a 4 year university? Another 1/4th go to local community colleges (which I hear is where students are pushed towards due to their lack of success) and 50% go directly into the workforce, or at least not to any college directly after school.

So if 95% of Worcester Tech grads go to college – those students are not likely any of the 50% going directly into the workforce.

All of a sudden does Worcester Tech seem a bit exclusive? I’d say so.

Now, I think the school is great. Students who do well in school deserve a chance to get ahead, build their tech skills to get into the best colleges, and learn in an empowering school environment. But on the backs of the students who need that school environment?

Which brings me to my second point, this type of school should be available to all students who wish to attend. There should be enough campuses to accommodate every student who need this opportunity. We should be incorporating more of their school culture and style into traditional public schools. We need more Worcester Tech’s.

But please don’t laud them as turning around a school – when the students who were there to begin with are not there. And we are still not serving those students who need us. Because of the admission reqs, its very likely that the 95% college going graduates would have also gone to college from their sending school. Worcester Tech may not actually be increasing Worcester’s graduation rate. Just moving the numbers around.

School take over plan that is working – Lawrence, MA

School take over plan that is working – Lawrence, MA

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.