By Mark E. Vogler
---- — LAWRENCE – When the Oliver Partnership School opens next fall, its teachers will have more power over how the school runs than any educators ever had in the history of Lawrence Public Schools.
The Lawrence Teachers Union will even get to recommend its choice for principal of the newly constituted elementary school – another first for the city’s public education system.
“It’s a school where the teachers will have unprecedented voice in the day-to-day functioning of the building,” Superintendent/Receiver Jeffrey C. Riley said in an interview last week.
“The union will play a bigger role in the hiring of a principal than it ever has. They will put forth a candidate or candidates. I think it’s likely I would go with their recommendation. Obviously, I have to do my due diligence,” Riley said.
Strong union participation in the management of the new Oliver Partnership School is at the core of a bold, new plan to turnaround grades 1 through 5 of the Henry K. Oliver School. The mission is to fix a school that was downgraded last fall to “Level 4” – a designation for the state’s 43 lowest achieving and least improving schools.
Riley has previously drawn heavy criticism from the union for his decision to form partnerships between the school district and four outside groups affiliated with charter schools to manage four of the city’s other failing “Level 4” schools and a new alternative high school created for dropouts and at-risk youth.
Part of Riley’s solution to turnaround the Oliver School is to split it into two separate schools – the Oliver Partnership School and an independent middle school for grades 6 through 8.
The new middle school will be called UP Academy Oliver and will be managed by Unlocking Potential (UP), regarded by Riley as “a proven turnaround operator and current LPS partner” which has already been overseeing the management of Grade 6 at the Leonard Middle School, another one of the city’s six “Level 4” schools. UP will manage grade 6 next fall, and grades 7 and 8 the following year.
“I have been impressed so far with the Unlocking Potential School at the Leonard,” Riley said.
“The early results are promising. We really like their middle school model. They’ve done some good work down in Boston. So, it was not a difficult decision to turn the keys over to them and to continue our partnership with them,” he said.
But teacher union officials have repeatedly expressed their opposition to the concept of hiring private educational management organizations (EMOs) to run the city’s most troubled schools.
“It’s like the people in charge are saying ‘we don’t know how to fix this’,” one teacher was quoted as saying in an article published on the union website last year.
“By handing the school to an EMO, they’re basically relinquishing any responsibility for the schools and its problems,” the teacher continued.
There were also rumors generated by the union that a private education company would take over the Oliver School, replacing longtime teachers with less-experienced recruits.
Looking at many options
Riley’s decision to allow the union to play a prominent role in running the Oliver Partnership School contradicts that union suspicion and others that he’s more inclined to use EMOs with charter school backgrounds to turn around the city’s most troubled schools.
“I have seen great union schools and I have seen great charter schools,” Riley said last week.
“Parents really don’t care. All they want is a great school. We’ll look at all plans as needed. When we have a situation where schools are labeled as ‘underperforming,’ we’re going to look at as many options as possible,” Riley said.
“This was just a thoughtful proposal that had both clarity of purpose and a sincerity for the children of Lawrence. The teachers union and I obviously aren’t going to agree on everything. But this is an area where we are coming together for the best interests of the kids. We’re excited to make them (the union) a partner and join up with them to make this a reality,” he said.
The union plan for the Oliver Partnership School was crafted with input from state and national representatives of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Some of the discussions took place last month at the Manhattan headquarters of the United Federation of Teachers, site of the annual AFT Center for School Improvement Leadership Institute.
Riley went to New York City with Lawrence Teachers Union President Frank McLaughlin to hear teachers and administrators from around the country share their views on various school improvement plans that have succeeded – including a handful of school models similar to the one proposed for the Oliver Partnership School.
Riley liked the concept. Soon after the trip to New York City, he invited the Lawrence Teachers Union to submit a detailed plan for the redesign of the Oliver School that would give its teachers and their union a key role in running the school.
“We have communicated to Superintendent Riley that the best approach for students, staff, and the larger Lawrence community is for the Oliver School to be operated through a collaborative partnership involving the union, district, and community,” McLaughlin wrote in a letter to union members on Jan. 28.
“The union’s involvement would feature extensive support and assistance from all three levels of the union: the national AFT, AFT Massachusetts, and the Lawrence Teachers Union,” McLaughlin said.
On Feb. 4, McLaughlin submitted an 11-page plan titled “The Oliver Partnership Proposal ... A Labor-Management-Community-School Connecting Oliver Students to Lawrence’s Past, Present and Future.”
Doing more than educating
The proposal noted that the community the school serves includes “the neediest students,” students who face difficult circumstances that aren’t conducive to academic achievement.
“To close the achievement gap, the new Oliver Partnership School will address issues that are beyond the control of educators yet have a direct impact on student outcomes,” the plan said.
“Healthcare, social services and parental involvement are too often divorced from school life, although they are critical to student success. With the support of local agencies and community groups, the Oliver Partnership School would provide students with services beyond instruction to reach their potential,” it continued.
The so-called “wraparound services” that will be phased in to address children’s needs include medical, dental, nutritional, mental health and other social services, under the plan. The school will hire a social worker and/or a behavioral specialist focused on discipline and student behavior.
The specialists will work closely with parents to keep students in school rather than removing them from the learning environment, according to McLaughlin.
There will also be programs to encourage parental involvement and family stability. These include English language instruction, employment counseling, citizenship programs and GED high school equivalency programs, McLaughlin said.
Meanwhile, there will be an ongoing emphasis on teacher improvement. Instructional coaches will be available to the faculty to improve teaching methods.
Riley said one aspect of the plan that impressed him the most was “the AFT’s ability to bring in some of the quality teacher training from their national office.”
“The teachers will be making recommendations for the leadership of that school. They will have their own governance board. This is a school that will focus on teacher leadership,” Riley said.
The union and teachers at the Oliver School have lobbied Riley for a chance to play a key role in turning around their school ever since the state declared it “Level 4.”
McLaughlin last fall cited “mismanagement” by state and city education officials as a significant contributing factor for the poor MCAS scores of students at the Oliver School, which is located at the North Common Educational Complex — the former Lawrence High School building.
“Students and faculty at the Oliver School have suffered through one poor principal after another — and another. Deplorable building conditions have displaced students who have been repeatedly shipped to inferior classrooms across the city,” McLaughlin said in an earlier interview.
The state identifies schools as “Level 4” as a result of low performances on MCAS English language arts and mathematics tests over a four-year period and failure to show substantial improvement over that time.
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 three-year increase in student achievement and demonstrate that a system is in place to sustain that improvement.
Oliver teachers point out that their school once was among the top performing schools in the city.
“Most teachers will tell you that the Oliver’s slide began when we moved our school to the old Lawrence High School building in 2009,” 17-year-veteran Oliver School teacher Maureen Santiago told the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education last November when it convened for a rare meeting in Lawrence.
“The facility, which was built around the year 1900, is simply unsuitable for small children. The imposing structure does not provide a nurturing environment and lacks such necessities as a playground, working library and appropriated sized bathrooms,” Santiago testified.
She also noted “The building houses a separate grade 1-12 school for special education students, thereby putting young children in the same building as young adults with severe emotional issues. This does not make for a safe learning environment in many cases, with ‘code-red’ lockdowns being an all-too-common occurrence.”
Seven principals in 10 years
Compounding the Oliver’s problems, the school has lacked leadership, “going through seven principals in approximately 10 years,” Santiago said.
For his part, Riley declined to comment on the union and the Oliver teachers’ criticism of Lawrence Public Schools’ role in the Oliver School’s decline.
“There’s no question that this is a school which had chronic underperformance, and it was clear to everyone that things had to change,” Riley said.
“I am not going to blame anyone. I want to move forward and build a great school,” he said.
The Oliver School is not only moving forward, but its students in grades 1 through 5 will be moving out of the old Lawrence High School at 233 Haverhill St. when a new school year begins in September and back into the original Oliver School Building at 183 Haverhill St.
Current tenants at 183 Haverhill St. – the High School Learning Center and Adult Learning Center program – will trade places with the Oliver Partnership School an relocate to 233 Haverhill St.
“We’re going to put a lot of work and effort to fix that school up to really make a welcoming place for kids. That’s going to happen over the spring and the summer,” Riley said.
“That’s a building (the original Oliver School) that has good bones structurally, but needs to be rehabbed. We’re going to direct funds this spring and over the summer to do that,” he said.