As PVD School Takeover Begins, Looking At Lawrence MA

Rhode Island is now in control of the Providence Schools. Education commissioner Angelica Infante-Green now has broad authority to control budget, personnel and other aspects of the district, but details for her plans remain scant.

State leaders, including Governor Gina Raimondo have referred to the Lawrence Massachusetts school district, which went under state control in 2012, as an example of how takeovers can make a positive difference.

Beth Schueler, professor of education policy at the University of Virginia followed the Lawrence takeover efforts as part of her research and spoke with reporter John Bender.

Interview highlights:

Before 2012, the Lawrence schools had been low performing for years. The district was in the bottom five for the entire state based on standardized test scores. Only about half of all high school students were graduating within four years. On top of that, allegations of wrongdoing plagued both the Mayor and the district superintendent.

Legislation passed in 2010 allowed the state to step in in 2011, place the school into receivership and name a new superintendent, Jeff Riley, who began making changes in 2012. Riley is now the commissioner of education for Massachusetts.

Specific changes Riley led during the takeover

Riley cut a significant amount from the Lawrence School District central administrative office, pushing more money towards individual schools. The takeover also gave principals greater power over the running of each of their schools.

Riley replaced half of all principals during the first two years. Only about 10 percent of teachers were let go during the early part of the takeover. In the second year the teachers’ contract was re-negotiated, creating a new merit-based compensation system.

The takeover also involved extending the school day for some schools, and the creation of week-long tutoring programs for students needing extra help during winter and spring vacations.

Riley also increased the use of data and testing to inform changes deemed necessary to the schools, Schueler says.

The interventions varied school by school, with some receiving a lot of help from the state, and other being turned over to independent operators, including charter school management organizations.

How were these changes received?

Changes including those to personnel could be among the thorny issues that Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green will need to navigate during the state intervention in Providence.

In Lawrence, those changes were largely received as positive by the community, says Schueler. The takeover was not likely the union’s top choice for district reform says Schueler, but the group limited active opposition to the process. The union did negotiate a new contract, and even helped run one school.

Is the Lawrence takeover considered successful?

There were gains in both math and reading scores, especially in the early years of the takeover. The gains were significant especially in math scores. As of last year, the district was still identified as in need of comprehensive support from the state.

Largely the turnaround has helped close the gap between Lawrence and other low-income community districts. This highlights how long these school reforms can take, says Schueler.

Editor's note: a previous version of this story referred to charter "companies," implying private for-profit organizations. The organizations tasked with running schools in the beginning of the turnaround were not-for-profit. The wording has been changed to reflect that.