EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 24, 2013

Editorial: Lawrence schools give us cause to celebrate, reason to hope

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — Lawrence kids, their parents and educators — and the taxpayers from all over the state who financially support city schools — had reason to celebrate last week.

The schools are getting better after years of decline, a fact reflected in higher scores on state MCAS tests.

Two elementary schools — Guilmette and Wetherbee — achieved Level 1 status, meaning they showed significant progress on the MCAS, the statewide standardized test that measures student achievements in math and English language arts from year to year.

The two schools join two other Level 1 schools, South Lawrence East Elementary and Frost Middle School, which reached that status a year ago and maintained it this year.

Also, for the first time in three years, no Lawrence School was downgraded to Level 4, a label that signals poor and worsening test scores.

Not quite two years after the state declared the Lawrence School District a “chronically underperforming,” Level 5 system, the slide has been stopped and the turnaround begun.

How did it happen?

It started in November 2011, when the state took control of the schools from the dysfunctional School Committee, led by Mayor William Lantigua, which had allowed the schools go to pot while it fussed and feuded over things that didn’t really matter.

In January 2012, Jeffrey C. Riley was named superintendent/receiver and soon began a badly needed shakeup.

Working with his team of teachers and administrators and borrowing some ideas from successful charter schools, Riley reformed the curriculum and built in more learning time -- including creating “vacation academies” to provide more help to students. Crucially, he also hired professional tutors to work with hundreds of high schoolers on their math skills. He cut the bloated central office to free more resources for teaching.

He sought student buy-in by adding arts and other enrichment programs and investing $2.5 million in building repairs and improvements at some long-neglected schools.

Principals of the two schools that made the leap to Level 1 said the commitment of their teachers to the turnaround plan was a major factor.

“People were not happy when we went from Level 2 to Level 3 and we decided we were going to do something about it,” Wetherbee Principal Colleen Lennon said. “It was really all hands on deck.”

Guilmette Principal Lori Butterfield credited “99.9 percent of the victory to my teachers.”

“It’s a huge accomplishment for our teachers,” said Butterfield, now in her fifth year as principal at the Guilmette.

“I’m going to credit it to our teachers because they are the ones teaching our kids.”

When he was considering the offer to take control of the school system in Lawrence, Riley said at the time, some told him not to accept, the situation was hopeless.

Riley proved them wrong. So did the kids, their parents and their teachers. Therein lies a lesson for other struggling public school systems.

It takes vision, hard work and the wise allocation of resources, but, yes, urban schools are not doomed to fail their students.

Riley said the schools have taken a “lot of steps to put ourselves in a position where we can do better.”

But he’s not satisfied with that, and neither should the students and teachers rest on their new laurels.

“The best is yet to come. This is a really good barometer for where we are headed,” Riley told reporter Mark Vogler, who has been following this story from the beginning.

But the progress made in the first full year of receivership gives the lie to the myth that the school were a lost cause — the kids and parents too uninterested in education, the teachers too incompetent or apathetic.

For that Riley, his team and the students themselves deserve our congratulations and thanks.