By Mark E. Vogler
---- — LAWRENCE — Summer vacation ends for the 13,300 students in Lawrence Public Schools who will go to their first day of classes Wednesday.
The starting date for the state’s poorest performing school district — which enters its second full year under state receivership — is a full two weeks ahead of Boston and may be the earliest opening for any public school system in Massachusetts this year.
“August 21 is a fairly early opening statewide,” Superintendent/Receiver Jeffrey C. Riley said. “Many school districts start the following week and some start after Labor Day.”
By contrast, classes begin in Haverhill on Aug. 27, in Andover on Aug. 28, in North Andover on Sept. 3 and in Methuen on Sept. 4.
Cutting summer vacation short is an easy way to help increase classroom time for a school system that’s been declared as “chronically underperforming” and ranked as the only Level 5 district in the state.
Riley said the early start is actually due to the weather, not increased classroom time. He noted that over the last two years, weather-related cancellations pushed the final days of classes to the end of June and beginning of July. Riley would prefer to begin the school year earlier than ending it late.
“For our grades 1-8 schools, this is the first year that all schools will add a minimum of 200 hours to the school year,” said Riley, who is in his 19th month of a 3 1/2-year contract to run the city’s troubled school district. He expects it could take him up to seven years to be able to returned the school system to city control.
“Schools were given the freedom to determine what their particular schedule will look like. With the launch of this initiative, we will have the largest concentration of expanded learning time schools in the state,” he said.
Grades 9-12 will keep traditional hours, as high school students often have jobs or participate in sports and other extracurricular activities, according to Riley.
Riley ‘excited’ about new year
Despite a spring and summer of contentious negotiations with Lawrence Teachers Union — which has three unfair labor practices pending with the state Labor Relations Board, Riley is encouraged by the progress of the school district over the past 12 months and optimistic about the future.
“I think it’s fair to say we are most excited about some of our early wins. The graduation rate has increased. The dropout rate has declined. Student attendance is up at over 90 percent of our schools and we are anxiously awaiting the MCAS results after our first full year of the Receivership,” he said.
The MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System), which are due to released by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in mid-September, will be one of the first indicators on how well the state takeover and “Turnaround Plan” is working.
Soon after the release of the MCAS scores, the district will also learn whether there are any new additions to the list of the city’s failing schools which will have to adopt an individual “Turnaround Plan.” The state has already designated six city schools as “Level 4” or “underperforming.” That designation is based on low performances on MCAS English language arts and mathematics tests over a four-year period and failure to show substantial improvement over that time.
Riley has continued to use his unprecedented powers to initiate changes in the way the school district is run.
“We have spent the first 18 months of the Receivership restructuring the district,” Riley said. “We made changes to 5-10 percent of our faculty and over 40 percent of our school leaders. We have reduced the size of the central office by almost one-third as we moved away from an autocratic, monolithic central office structure.”
“In turn, we have directed more resources and autonomies down to the school level, believing that schools function best when teachers, parents and school leaders work together to better their particular school. As such, our reduced central office must now pivot and serve primarily as a support system for our schools. Essentially, we now work for them, not the other way around,” he said.
The new initiatives
The $1.3-million saved from the elimination of 25 central office positions in May is being used to help pay for the longer school days, new text book adoptions and additional classroom teachers and staff, Riley said.
Riley has also established a Family Welcome Center at the central office which helps with everything from registration, to adult education, to connecting families to medical, counseling and other health services in the community.
Other initiatives for the new year include:
- A new compensation system that guarantees all teachers their first raise in more than three years and allows them to earn significantly more money faster in their careers: Top teachers after five years could make $85,000 annually. Right now, a similar teacher with a master’s degree, earns $55,826. The best teachers could earn up to $100,000 under a career ladder pay scale developed by Riley’s office.
- Expanded Learning Time for all students in grades 1-8, resulting in a longer school day: Teachers will receive a stipend on top of the raise they are getting to use this time for targeted intervention, arts and enrichment and more planning time.
- The opening of two new schools to replace the Oliver School, which had been downgraded last fall to “Level 4” status. The Henry K. Oliver Partnership School (grades 1-5) will be unique in the state, in that the Lawrence Teachers Union will play a prominent role in managing its day-to-day operations.
The UP Academy Oliver Middle School (Grade 6) will be managed by Unlocking Potential, which has already been overseeing the management of the Leonard Middle School, another one of the city’s “Level 4” schools.
- A “teacher leader cabinet” to reward top educators in the city with a $5,000 honorarium and empower them in the ongoing turnaround of Lawrence Public Schools: Riley’s office will select 100 teacher leaders next month to participate in the after-school program which will allow teachers a voice in setting direction of the school district.
- The continuation and expansion of involvement by four outside groups affiliated with charter schools to manage the city’s failing schools.
- Emphasis on improving special education and instruction for English language learners. The district has added 15 teachers to its staff for these two areas.
Many new faces
Riley said his office expects to hire up to 140 new teachers, about a dozen less than last year. But, that’s still substantially more than usual. Typically, the annual teacher turnover is 90 to 100. There are about 1,000 teachers in the system.
The school administration has undergone even greater turnover. Riley has appointed 24 new principals and assistant principals — 19 of whom are veterans within the city’s education system.
One of the newcomers is Rebecca Hyde, who comes to Lawrence after a decade in Lowell Public Schools where she was involved in turnaround efforts at the Murkland School, a “Level 4” school in that city.
“I wanted to come to a place where the vision of the leader matched my vision as well,” said Hyde, who will be at the Parthum Elementary School.
Hyde, 43, of Dracut, said she was just beginning her educational career in Tyngsborough at the time that Riley was principal of Tyngsborough Middle School. She didn’t know Riley at the time, but has recently learned that she shares his vision for a decentralized central office.
“His vision involves empowering school leaders, but also empowering teachers as leaders and decision makers,” said Hyde, who will supervise more than 40 teachers who will instruct more than 550 students.
The teachers union has concerns
Lawrence Teachers Union President Frank McLaughlin said he shares Riley’s passion and commitment to improve education for the city’s children, but disagrees with his approach to the turnaround.
“One of the big differences that I have with Jeff is that he’s looking to make a system of independent and competitive schools, with basically everyone on a different page,” said McLaughlin, who begins his 34th year in Lawrence.
The 1,100-member union is also concerned about losing its collective bargaining rights — which is at the heart of the unfair labor practices filed against Riley, according to McLaughlin. He said teachers have been working without a contract for three years and are seeking a new collective bargaining agreement — not one “unilaterally imposed” by Riley.
“The union does agree that extended learning will have a significant impact on student achievement,” McLaughlin said.
“Where we have a disagreement is on the compensation. We’re not looking for meager pay for extended learning time. We want a cap on teacher hours and want to be paid fairly,” he said.