By Mark E. Vogler
---- — BOSTON – Lawrence Public School Superintendent/Receiver Jeffrey C. Riley told a ballroom full of educators over breakfast yesterday that he doesn't think that turning around an entire school district has ever been done.
But Riley, who was hired by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education six months ago to do just that with the state's most troubled school system, vowed he will do whatever it takes to get the job done. He called it "unacceptable" that half of the students who attend Lawrence High School "actually wind up walking across the stage" to receive their diplomas.
"There are kids in the schools right now that if we don't take drastic steps aren't going to make it to graduation," Riley told the crowd of more than 100 at the Omni Parker House.
"I was at student registration last week, watching two excited kindergarteners come in to register for school and the only thing I could think of was not how cute they were – but we've got to fix this so they walk across that stage – because if we don't, they're not going to. And this is going to be a huge problem," Riley said.
"At the end of the day, it's all about results. I put myself as the man in the middle and we've got to produce and it's got to be a whatever-it-takes culture to get it done," he said.
Riley was the keynote speaker on a forum titled "The Lawrence Reforms and School Choice," hosted by the Pioneer Institute. The Boston-based, privately funded think tank has been a strong advocate for charter schools over the past two decades. The push for charter schools playing a greater role in the state's overall educational opportunities for children – particularly in Lawrence – resonated as a key theme yesterday.
A panel of educational experts included several members with charter school backgrounds. One of the participants – Beth Anderson – is executive director of the Phoenix Charter Academy Network, which will open an alternative high school for dropouts under Riley's turnaround plan when the new school year starts on Aug. 27.
Pioneer Institute's executive director James Stergios noted in his opening remarks that 80 percent of the schools in New Orleans are charter schools – a major development in the years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged that Louisiana city in August 2005. In the rebuilding of New Orleans, the increase in charter schools has been credited with improving an educational system once considered among the nation's worst.
"Lawrence is our Katrina moment," Stergios said, referring to the potential opportunities that can be achieved by using charter schools to help turn around the school system. The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education declared LPS as "chronically underperforming" last November and voted to place the Level 5 school district into receivership.
During his talk yesterday, Riley acknowledged that charter schools will play an important role in turning around the city schools. "We're going to bring in outside partners to help," Riley said. But, he stressed that he didn't care whether the partners were from public, private, Catholic or charter school circles. "I just want good schools," Riley said.
While Riley spoke, a projector screen illuminated the vision guides the turnaround plan which will be the blueprint during the state receivership: "Lawrence Public Schools will be a portfolio of outstanding individual neighborhood schools where students are engaged in rigorous and effective instruction in every lesson, in every classroom, in every school, every day propelling them to perform at high levels, reach their full potential, and achieve college or career success."
Riley, who is working on a three and a half year contract that could be extended several years, called the plan "very radically different" from more traditional methods that had been proposed, like reorganizations with a "top-down strategy." "We're making the unit of change the individual schools where teachers and the principal, the majority of whom spend next year planning to change what the school day looks like, what the school year looks like, what the school looks like," Riley said.
"We're looking to build a system which is decentralized" where the central office that previously ran the school system "is changed to a more nimble structure that only goal is to support the schools, principals and the teachers," he said.
Initially, the South Lawrence East Elementary School and the Frost Middle School, two of the district's two high performing schools, will be allowed to run as they have. "We want to celebrate them, give them autonomy, get out of the way and let them do their jobs," Riley said. "We want everybody else to plan to do better. If they do do better, we're going to give them more autonomy," he said.
"You've got to let people be creative. You've got let them operate in such a way, they get good results for kids," he said.
Panelist Tom Gosnell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Massachusetts, said he was glad to see that Riley had included the classroom teachers as important partners in the turnaround plan. He also embraced Riley's approach of using individual schools as the main focus of change.