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Three nonprofits to turn around schools

Takeovers set for Holland, Devers

Massachusetts education officials who are poised to take over four schools in Boston, Holyoke, and New Bedford announced Wednesday that they have selected three nonprofits and a superintendent with records of boosting student achievement as receivers, under a first-of-a-kind experiment in the state.

In Boston, the state is tapping two education nonprofits that already have relationships with the city’s school system: Unlocking Potential and Blueprint Schools Network.

Unlocking Potential, which specializes in turning around failing schools under the name UP Academy, will operate the Holland Elementary School in Dorchester. Blueprint Schools, which has demonstrated success in Denver, will oversee the Dever Elementary, also in Dorchester.


Similarly, in Holyoke, the state is hiring Project GRAD, a national nonprofit that already works with Holyoke, to run the Morgan Full Service Community School.

But in New Bedford, Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, has decided that Superintendent Pia Durkin is well suited to oversee a state-crafted turnaround plan for the Parker Elementary School. However, Durkin will report directly to Chester on that school’s progress.

“I have every conviction that the low performance we have been watching in these schools is not only an injustice but unnecessary,” Chester said. “I know we can do better.”

The takeovers, which officially occur this summer, will mark the first time the state has seized control of individual schools from a district, a power given to the state under a 2010 law. Previously, the state had to place entire districts into receivership to intervene.

Educators are eagerly watching the process to see if the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and its hand-picked receivers will have better luck than local districts with turning around failing schools or if they will be held back by the same obstacles.

Those obstacles, educators say, can be immense. High rates of students at the schools have learning disabilities or lack fluency in English. Many also come to school lacking sleep, nourishment, or focus, often the consequences of living in poverty or in neighborhoods plagued by violent crime.


Richard Stutman, the Boston Teachers Union president, said it was a mistake to hire the nonprofits, which will be asking administrators, teachers, and other staffers to reapply for their jobs.

“The Boston Teachers Union doesn’t believe bringing in a third party and starting over is a good step in helping the schools and the children,” Stutman said. “The people who committed the most energy and expertise to helping and educating those children will be forced to leave. That is not a good step.”

Under the 2010 law, Chester could appoint a school district’s superintendent to oversee the receivership. But Chester said he decided against that in Boston because John McDonough is only serving as superintendent temporarily until the School Committee hires a permanent replacement.

In New Bedford, Chester said, he has faith in Durkin, who took over as superintendent this school year, because she has shown previously that she is “savvy in implementing turnarounds.”

McDonough declined an interview request through his spokesman. In a letter to parents and the community, McDonough said, “we must never allow another school to move into Level 5 status,” referring to state receivership.

Boston, Holyoke, and New Bedford had three years to overhaul the four schools and had numerous resources to be successful: millions of dollars in federal grants and a state law that enabled them to replace teachers, lengthen the school day, and enact a number of curriculum and program changes with little interference from teacher unions.


But the school systems failed to get the job done.

The enormity of school turnaround work previously has prompted Boston to seek assistance from nonprofits. Last year, Boston partnered with Blueprint Schools to avoid takeovers of English High School in Jamaica Plain and the Elihu Greenwood Leadership Academy in Hyde Park.

Boston also brought in Unlocking Potential to run the former Marshall Elementary School in Dorchester last fall and the former Gavin Middle School in South Boston in 2011.

Unlocking Potential operates each as “in-district charter schools” and the schools now go by the names of UP Academy Dorchester and UP Academy Boston, respectively. The Holland, starting next fall, will be called UP Academy Holland, but it will not convert into a charter school.

Scott Given, the chief executive of Unlocking Potential, said he is eager to work with the Holland. “Turning around a school is tough work, and there will be challenges ahead,” Given said. “But I think we are up to the challenge. I believe all students in Boston deserve an extraordinary school.”

Matt Spengler, executive director of Blueprint, echoed that sentiment. “We are excited to get to work,” Spengler said. “We believe it is an honor and a privilege to work with a school in Boston this way.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.