EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 12, 2012

State receiver embarks on historic mission to transform Lawrence's failed school system

By Mark E. Vogler

LAWRENCE — Lawrence Public Schools made history yesterday when the troubled district became the first to be placed into receivership by the state.

But the school system will make even bigger history if the receiver's turnaround plan works, something that may take years.

Calling it "a great day," state Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester introduced the receiver he has appointed to oversee what is hoped will be a transformation of the failed school system.

Chester said the hiring of a Boston educator Jeffrey C. Riley, 40, to run Lawrence schools was an unprecedented response to the problems of a chronically underperforming public school system.

Riley will officially take charge of Lawrence Public Schools Tuesday, assuming the authority previously held by the superintendent and School Committee.

In making his announcement yesterday during a news conference at the South Lawrence East Educational Complex on Crawford Street, Chester said the Lawrence school system is the first public system in the state to be taken over by a receiver with authority to run educational programs as well as manage finances.

Riley, the chief innovation officer for the Boston Public Schools, was given a three-year contract that will pay him $198,000 a year as receiver.

"Jeff Riley is a very capable educator who brings to the role of receiver a successful record of leading turnaround efforts at urban schools where performance has risen for all students, including English language learners," Chester said.

"Under Jeff's leadership, Lawrence will implement the change needed to transform teaching and learning district-wide. Receivership, however, will not be a solitary effort. As receiver, Jeff will work closely with educators, parents, business leaders and students, as well as key external partners, to build on the strengths of the Lawrence community and develop a bold turnaround plan to dramatically improve outcomes for all students," the commissioner said.

"Our primary goal is ensuring that every student in Lawrence has access to a world-class education," said Education Secretary Paul Reville. "Jeff is an experienced educator who has a reputation as an innovative leader and a track record of thinking and working outside the box. I want to thank Jeff for taking on this tremendous responsibility and look forward to working with him and his team to bring about dramatic improvement in achievement outcomes for the students of Lawrence."

It's not clear what role, if any, the School Committee will play under the receiver or how long the city's schools will remain under receivership.

Riley said he has not yet determined the scope of the committee's participation but plans to meet with members soon and get their input before moving forward.

He said it may take longer than his three-year contract to make the changes necessary to improve the city's 28 schools and return governance to a superintendent and the School Committee.

"I'd love to say this is for three years, but it could be a four-, to six- to seven-year process," Riley said.

In an interview later, Riley stressed that turning around Lawrence Public Schools "can't be a one-man show."

"This is going to be by the stakeholders and community of Lawrence coming together," Riley said.

"My first biggest challenge is really getting to know the community. To be able to assess in a really deep way what's happening in each of the schools individually and the district as a whole is going to be crucial for whatever we decide the plan is going to be moving forward," Riley said.

"I think we need to be very collaborative as we move forward. Change can be very hard," he said.

Commissioner Chester launched a search for a receiver late last year after the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to declare Lawrence a "Level 5" school district, the lowest designation for an underperforming school system. The vote authorized Chester to hire a receiver.

Chester declined to say how many candidates applied for the position or how many finalists he interviewed.

"The fact we selected Jeff is a real tribute to how strong he is," Chester said.

"Jeff's got the passion, the commitment to our urban youth. He's got the track record. He has done this work and he's turned schools around and he's shown the ability to implement the changes that are needed to get better results for our children, particularly children from urban neighborhoods, children whose first language is not English," he said.

Riley will report directly to Chester. One of his first tasks will be to create a turnaround plan that will set goals and objectives for measuring academic improvement and success within the school system.

Riley acknowledged that forthcoming changes may not please some people but added "all of my decisions will be made for the betterment of the children of Lawrence Public Schools."

He reassured school officials at yesterday's briefing that there would be no major staff shakeup, a vow made by the commissioner in previous talks with Lawrence officials.

"There will be no massive firings in the district," Riley said. "Part of my job is to make sure people are functioning at their highest level. I have no preconceived notions," he said.


Join the discussion. To comment on stories and see what others are saying, log on to eagletribune.com.