By Mark E. Vogler
---- — LAWRENCE — It was a cake and ice cream day Friday for teachers and students of the Guilmette and Wetherbee schools.
Superintendent/Receiver Jeffrey C. Riley visited both schools and rewarded them with "Level 1" parties to celebrate reaching the top designation in a five-level accountability system that measures scholastic performance in the MCAS tests.
"You're all getting ice cream, but you've got to do me a favor and save cake for your teachers," Riley was overheard telling students at both schools. He and his staff arrived at each school with balloons, a sheet cake with a giant "1" and ice cream.
Riley is planning similar parties this week for the South Lawrence East Elementary and Frost Middle schools — last year’s Level 1 designates — to acknowledge their efforts to stay at Level 1.
"It's a pretty impressive accomplishment to double the amount of Level 1's," Riley said in an interview, reflecting on one of Lawrence Public Schools' (LPS) major highlights in the MCAS results released by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
"Both of these new Level 1 schools were designated as Level 3 last year. So they have made substantial progress," Riley said, noting the schools were among the lowest performing 20 percent of schools across the state. Students at the two schools performed so well they skipped Level 2, which includes 776 schools or 48 percent of those taking the MCAS.
The city's school district now has four schools among the 500 Level 1 schools statewide that are in the top tier for progress made, 31 percent of the 1,614 schools rated under the system. That's a sign of significant improvement for a school district ranked as the worst in the state.
"I'm not sure how many (Level 1's) we should have," said Riley, who is now in the 18th month of a 3 1/2-year contract overseeing an urban education system of 13,585 children taught by 1,200 educators in 30-plus schools.
"Our goal is to get as many schools as possible in that range," Riley said.
The latest MCAS results showed significant progress in efforts to turn around the city's troubled schools, particularly in math. The percentage of students rated proficient or better showed double-digit gains in grades 3, 5, 8 and 10. Overall, 20 of 24 schools showed improvement in math proficiency.
In the category of Student Growth Percentile, which measures how students are progressing compared to their academic peers (those with similar scores the year before), 21 of 24 schools improved in math. The math SGP jumped from 40 percent to 57 percent — the highest ever recorded in the district.
"To see the math scores go from a 40 to a 57 as a district is really significant and we think we may be one of the highest scoring cities per growth in Massachusetts," Riley said.
Test score improvements in English language arts weren't as great, but still showed gains. Fifteen out of 24 schools improved their SGP in English, and 14 of the 24 schools improved English proficiency rates.
"The improvement we're seeing is not just limited to a few schools," Riley said.
"We're seeing a lot of growth among our children and we have taken a lot of steps to put ourselves in a position where we can do better. The best is yet to come. This is a really good barometer for where we are headed," Riley said.
"The vast majority of schools improved in Lawrence and no new schools fell into Level 4 status. We were able to stop that and that's an accomplishment as well," he said.
Level 4 schools constitute 2 percent of the schools ranked under MCAS and are among the lowest achieving and least improving. There are currently 38 schools in the state with that designation, based on low performance on English Language Arts and math tests over a 4-year period and failure to show substantial improvement over that time.
The number of Level 4 schools increased from 6 to 8 in Lawrence, but that was because of the reconfiguration of some of the schools.
Level 4 schools are required to develop redesign plans in collaboration with the superintendent, school committee, teachers' union, administrators, teachers, parents and community representatives. To remove the Level 4 status, a school must show a 3-year increase in student achievement and demonstrate that a system is in place to sustain that improvement.
Recipe for success
"This is a good opening salvo of where we're going and what we want to do to improve our schools so our kids get a first rate education," Riley said of the MCAS results.
"Seventeen percent of our kids are in the better schools of Massachusetts," he said, referring to the students in Level 1 schools," he said. That percentage was at 8 percent a year ago.
"This is the first showing of the test scores after the first full year of receivership. It's a good first step and a very good day for us. But we've got to get back to work. Clearly, we have a long way to go," Riley said.
He estimated it could take five or more years — perhaps as many as eight years — to complete the task of turning around the schools.
Riley credited a combination of strategies to the early success:
— Reforming the curriculum and using data to assess student performance.
— Establishing vacation academies to provide more help for students.
— Adding arts and enrichment opportunities to achieve better student buy-in.
— Re-engaging students to increase graduation rates and bring dropout rates to historic lows.
— Pushing more resources to the school level, while reducing the size and scope of central office.
— Fixing school buildings so students have a healthy and safe environment that is more conducive to learning. The district has spent $2.5 million on building improvements since Riley declared it a top priority.
— The use of outside educational agencies as "partners" in helping to run several schools. For instance, Riley cited Match Tutoring as playing "an important part in some significant math gains" at the Business Management & Financial High School.
Riley selected the Boston-based education company to provide in-school-day professional tutoring in mathematics to 250 9th and 10th grade students at the Level 4 school.
“The Match tutors’ work with our students has been extraordinary, and the results were even better than I had expected," Riley said.
"Our goal in Lawrence has been to accelerate student achievement and become a model for other struggling school systems, and Match is helping us to accomplish that. I am especially pleased with how well the tutors fit into our work, and how closely they aligned with our teachers,” he said.
Match also tutored 300 9th and 10th grade students at the International High School, another Level 4 school. Because nearly all of International’s students are recent immigrants who have not previously taken the MCAS math test, their first-year test scores do not allow student growth percentiles to be measured.
"Both Unlocking Potential and Spark Academy showed some promising initial results in math as well," Riley said.
"We’ll know more at the end of this school year, but we’re optimistic about how the introduction of outside partners into the LPS system is progressing," he said.
The expansion of initiatives he introduced last year coupled with new ones — like 200-plus hours of extended learning time for students in grades 1-8 and increased parent engagement with the opening later this school year of the Family Resource Center — has increased higher expectations for next year's MCAS results, according to Riley.
There are other indicators that receivership is working. The percentage of 9th grade students graduating in four years increased significantly while the dropout rate continues to dip.
How do two Lawrence schools that were among the bottom 20 percent vault to the top 31 percent in performing schools in the state?
The two principals of the new Level 1 schools credit a corps of hard-working teachers for the dramatic improvement.
"People were not happy when we went from Level 2 to level 3 and we decided we were going to do something about it," Wetherbee Principal Colleen Lennon said.
"It was really all hands on deck. We had a lot of teachers visiting classrooms and sharing professional development. I think they believed we would go from 3 to 2. I don't think they thought it was possible to go from 3 to 1, but we did. It was a lot of hard work, but worth it in the end," said Lennon, who has been principal for about a decade. She's been a Lawrence educator since 1986, when she taught 7th grade science at the Arlington School.
Guilmette Elementary School Principal Lori Butterfield credited "99.9 percent of the victory to my teachers."
"It's a huge accomplishment for our teachers," said Butterfield, who began teaching in the district in 1998 and recently began her fifth year as principal at the Guilmette.
"I'm going to credit it to our teachers because they are the ones teaching our kids. We look at the arts and enrichment as being equal to academics. Our teachers are collaborative. We are really analyzing the data our kids are giving us and making some adjustments in professional practice based on that," she said.
While Riley threw parties at the two schools last Friday, the principals are planning to celebrate in their own way.
Lennon, who oversees a faculty of 55 teachers and 697 students in kindergarten through grade 8, said she's planning "a big October celebration" for students and their parents.
"We'll have a barbecue and give out certificates and get some 'Level 1' T-shirts for the students," Lennon said.
"This is the second happiest day of my professional life. The first was when I became a principal. Now, the goal is to stay there and get better at supporting kids who are still struggling, especially special education students and English language learners," she said.
Butterfield, who is in charge of a school of 600 children in grades 1-4 and about 50 teachers, said the Guilmette will "celebrate in moderation because there's still some work to do."
"I don't want to ruin the accomplishments by any means, but I don't want to rest on our laurels," Butterfield said.
"Right now, we are performing with the top schools in the state as far as meeting our targets," she said. "Hopefully, in a couple of years we we'll be able to say our kids are performing equally with kids in the state, then we will have something to really celebrate. We want to be in top 30 percent as far as proficiency rates go."