LAWRENCE – Before you scoff, hear me out: Broke, beleaguered, brutally mismanaged Lawrence has something to teach the rest of us about public education.
And it was all happening on Thursday afternoon. Five fourth-graders at the Guilmette Elementary School pondered the meaning of “clever” in a story about a goose. In another room, stronger readers puzzled over Saturn’s rings. “Go back to the text,” the teacher said, as they struggled. “Real reading is putting something into our own words to understand it.” In yet another, students contemplated a passage on child labor in Ecuador’s banana industry.
This year, the Guilmette, and every K-8 school in Lawrence, has done what education reformers all over the state dream of: It has lengthened its school day. Seven extra hours each week mean kids now have an hour a day of intensive, small group tutoring — or, for students who are doing well, accelerated studies. On Fridays, kids also get 2½ hours of enrichment (karate, yoga, cooking, athletics, theater) while teachers focus on planning.
“Our teachers have more time to plan and collaborate than ever before, and our students have more time for learning than ever before,” principal Lori Butterfield says. “It makes the impossible possible.”
We’re going to hear a lot about expanded learning time in coming weeks and months. It will be much discussed in Boston’s mayoral race, and in the gubernatorial tilt still taking shape. What’s always at issue is how to get it done.
Lawrence shows one way, though nobody would voluntarily take the route they did. The schools were failing so miserably that the state took over the entire district about 18 months ago. Receiver and Superintendent Jeff Riley, formerly of the Boston public schools, has since made sweeping changes, aided by a law that allowed him to bypass union rules. Since he took over, curricula have been overhauled, buildings repaired, and extra instruction offered during vacations. Some ineffective teachers were removed, and half of the principals were replaced.
It’s tough medicine but it’s working: Many of the city’s schools have made spectacular gains. The Guilmette was a Level 3 school last year, among the lowest-performing 20 percent in the state. With this year’s MCAS results, it became a Level 1 school. Now, with a longer school day, it will have a chance to truly shine.
Boston tried to extend its school day last year, but the Boston Teachers Union demanded that teachers be paid their full hourly rate for the extra time in addition to their annual raises. The city, which estimated that would cost $41 million annually (the union said $25 million), said it couldn’t afford that. The day stayed short in most schools. In others — about 30 of Boston’s 128 public schools — longer days have been patched together using a hodgepodge of funding sources.
In Lawrence, teachers had no choice. Some grumbled at the longer day, but few left because of it. Those who remained were treated like the professionals they are: Each school came up with its own plan for the extra hours. Riley established a new salary structure where, instead of automatic increases based on years of service and education, teachers move up according to their abilities. Almost every teacher saw his or her pay rise, by an average of $3,000. Depending on how many hours their schools added, teachers also receive an extra $2,000 to $4,000 annually on top of that. The longer day takes up $3.8 million of the schools’ $160 million budget.
The union isn’t thrilled, and has sued the state over the suspension of collective bargaining. Union head Frank McLaughlin says his teachers are paid “less than minimum wage” for the extra hours.
But ultimately, the unions are on the losing end of this battle, here and in Boston. Charters are already offering longer days, and in non-charters, state law allows struggling schools to bypass union rules. Legislation is afoot that will extend that autonomy to some 60 more Boston public schools. And the charter cap may be raised; both mayoral contenders support that.
Lawrence did it the hard way. Boston needs to agree on a less painful route, before it’s too late.
Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org