By Mark E. Vogler
---- — LAWRENCE — Superintendent/Receiver Jeffrey C. Riley raves about a bright future he envisages for Lawrence Public Schools.
It’s a future where the city’s education system ranks near the top of urban school districts across the state and all students have an opportunity to receive a college-worthy education. It’s a future where the city — not the state — runs the schools.
“I am more optimistic now than when I took the job,” Riley said in an interview on Friday — the first anniversary of his appointment to one of the most difficult assignments facing anyone in the state’s public education system.
“Lawrence Public Schools are laying a foundation and coming back. I think we are headed in the right direction. We’re improving every day, but we have a lot more work to,” he said.
Riley, 41, has completed his first 12 months of a 3 1/2-year contract of overseeing the state’s most-troubled school system. He expects it could take up to seven years to accomplish his mission to turn around the school district and return it to local governance.
“I believe it’s a five-to-seven-year process,” said Riley, who makes $198,000-a-year.
“If it happens quicker, great. But it’s going to take time to reform all the things that can be reformed,” he said.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education declared Lawrence a “Level 5” school district in late 2011, the state’s designation for a “chronically underperforming school district.”
That vote authorized State Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester to hire Riley to run the failing district and make the needed changes. It also stripped the seven-member elected School Committee of its governance powers.
Riley chalked up last year as grueling, yet productive period for improving the school district.
“I think we got a lot done,” Riley said.
“Overall, it’s too early to talk about being proud, but we are encouraged by some developments that have gotten the turnaround plan off to a solid start,” he said.
Emphasis on reducing dropout rate
Riley said major developments so far include:
The hiring of four outside groups affiliated with charter schools to manage four of the city’s failing schools and a new alternative high school for dropouts and at-risk youth. About 1,000 of the district’s 13,211 students are enrolled in programs operated by these partners.
An increase in school hours for students in nonperforming schools. There are now 529 students in four schools using an extended day. By this fall, Riley expects that number could soar substantially.
Completion of a difficult review of underperforming teachers and principals. This led to the replacement of 10 principals and the hiring of 160 new teachers for the school year that began last fall.
More than $1-million spent on 56 facility improvement projects, ranging from $1,000 fence replacements to $300,000 roof repairs. From the outset of his appointment, Riley declared renovations and repairs of school buildings a top priority.
Six new daily bus routes from Lawrence High School for students staying after school for sports, extracurricular, tutoring and other activities. The buses leave every 45 minutes starting around 4:30 and are routinely packed. It keeps students from having to walk home in the dark and cold, enabling them to stay longer for additional schoolwork or activities.
New student enrichment opportunities. The school district launched a new school – the Fifth Grade Academy at South Lawrence East School – with a unique curriculum based around the importance of physical fitness and activity.
Pursuit of grants and corporate donations to improve school facilities. Just last week, the district held a ribbon-cutting at the Fifth Grade Academy to celebrate a new $100,000 fitness center. School officials also dedicated a newly renovated gym at the Bruce School – a gift of the Boston Celtics.
Efforts to increase the high school graduation rate. Less than half of the city’s students graduate within four years. Riley hired Shalimar Quiles to be the district’s director of student re-engagement — a position that focuses on bringing dropouts back to school to get their degrees.
“Dropout recovery is an area we’ve put considerable energy and time into, focusing for the first time in recent LPS history on re-engaging students who’ve left the system,” Riley said in an interview last week.
“We had early success this summer with 10 students who’d left just shy of graduation coming back to enroll in summer classes to earn diplomas, and we continue to see those efforts rewarded in this school year,” he said.
“We currently have 76 students back in school who had previously dropped out. There’s no comparison for the previous year because prior to receivership there was no re-engagement effort in place, but the bottom line is we expect to be able to say in June that more kids reached the finish line than the year before,” he said.
Tough personnel issues
Riley cited the school district’s rigorous review of teachers and principals as the toughest part of his job last year.
“Any time you have to remove people, that’s not an easy decision,” Riley said, noting “a pretty significant turnover” in principals.
“Normally, you don’t see one-third of the principal corps being turned over. You don’t see that kind of turnover in a Massachusetts public school system. But we felt like some changes needed to be made to get better outcomes for our kids,” he said.
The receiver’s review of teachers also contributed to a high turnover. Normally, the district hires 90 to 100 new teachers each year.
“A lot of people on the review list decided to leave the district without going through the process,” Riley said.
“The majority of our people are doing the right thing. We have a lot of talent inside the school system. But, there were some people we felt who weren’t getting the job done,” he said.
At last week’s School Committee meeting, Riley told members he was satisfied “we have a great team of principals in the Lawrence Public Schools now.”
Having completed “a thorough review” of teachers and principals, Riley said he will take a close look this year at the staff and operations of the School Department’s Central Office and make changes if necessary.
Meanwhile, Riley has plans to recognize the district’s best teachers.
“We will reward and celebrate our best teachers with the Sontag Prize in Urban Education and establish our Acceleration Academies which offer vacation academic camps for our most needy students,” Riley said.
Riley created the Sontag Prize several years ago while in the Boston Public Schools. He set up the national award as a way to honor outstanding teaching in Boston and other urban school districts across the country. Now, he wants to honor Lawrence educators.
“The dedication of our teachers is something that really impressed me,” Riley said.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty with the receivership and being on the front lines every day. But there’s also a lot of people working hard. There’s a lot of quality people improving things for kids.,” he said.
Riley credited the hiring of “educational partners” as crucial to the turnaround of the city’s six “Level 4” schools — a designation for the state’s lowest achieving and least improving schools.
“MATCH Tutors are working with hundreds of students in the Level 4 high schools (International High School and Business Management and Financial High School),” Riley said.
“UP and Community Day have taken on students at other Level 4’s (Leonard Middle School and Arlington Elementary School, respectively); and Phoenix Academy rose from scratch — we had to recruit a student body, build a staff and find a building. All in all, including 5th Grade Academy (not a partner but an innovative new model), we launched four new schools in a matter of months,” he said.
“We will continue to phase in our partner organizations and will be coming out soon with our plans for changes at the Oliver Elementary School,” Riley said, referring to the latest city school placed on the Level 4 list.
A longer school day ahead
Plans are also underway to expand the school day for more students when the new school year begins next fall.
About 80 percent of students in grades 1 through 8 could be in for longer school days, increasing their hours from 1,330 to more than 1,500, according to Riley.
“I am interested in decentralizing the schools — giving the parents, the teachers and the administrators a say about what’s important in their school building,” Riley said.
“The individual schools will decide what they want to do. They have a lot of flexibility on how they want to set up their school,” he said.
The results of this spring’s MCAS tests — which will be released in the fall – may be the first true measurement of any dramatic improvement in academic performance under the receivership.
“I’m hoping that within three years, we’re going to have some significant progress and show we’ve made some great strides and that things are getting better,” Riley said.
“You can’t ever forget that there are kids that deserve a great education every day and we’ve got to do everything we can to make sure they get that great education,” he said.