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Overhaul of Lawrence schools showing results

At UP Academy Leonard Middle School in Lawrence, Jacob Hernandez (left) and De’Andre Lebron worked on a science experiment using boats filled with pennies.
At UP Academy Leonard Middle School in Lawrence, Jacob Hernandez (left) and De’Andre Lebron worked on a science experiment using boats filled with pennies.(Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)

LAWRENCE — Inspired by a rallying cry from the television series “Friday Night Lights,” UP Academy Leonard Middle School came up with a new mantra to symbolize its academic reemergence: “Clear halls, full hearts, can’t lose.”

Since the state took control of the Lawrence school system nearly three years ago, students no longer linger in the hallways at this middle school. Instead, they sit respectfully in their classrooms with good posture. When classmates are trying to answer a question, other students send good vibes by waving their fingers and then start snapping if they agree with the response.

“You always used to see kids in the hallways and wonder where should they be,” said Lia Bonamassa, the school’s director of operations. “The fact that the hallways are clear is an indication of the 9,000 things going on behind the scenes” that keep students engaged in learning.

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Across the city, the state’s effort to overhaul the long-
troubled school system is starting to get some traction, though no one is declaring victory just yet. MCAS scores, while still low, are climbing, and state and local officials predict when the latest MCAS scores are released statewide on Friday the upward trajectory will continue.

A flurry of activity is bringing about the changes and improvements, prompting a visit Thursday by US Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Efforts included creating partnerships with charter-school operators and other education nonprofits, slashing the size of central offices, letting go half the school principals and 10 percent of the teaching force, and giving schools the freedom to choose their academic programs.

But Jeffrey Riley, the school system’s state-appointed superintendent and receiver, said he resisted calls to “blow up the system and turn it into charter schools.”

“A lot of people were blaming teachers,” said Riley, who added that he found the teaching force to be strong. “The thing I’m most proud of is fundamentally, we decided to do this with people and not to people,” he said.

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Lawrence students tend to perform poorly on standardized tests. More than 90 percent of the system’s 13,500 students are Latino; 89 percent come from low-income households.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education placed Lawrence in receivership in November 2011, amid calls from former mayor William Lantigua and other elected officials to intervene.

Those calls came two months after the state released a scathing report that found widespread problems, including a botched search for a new superintendent to replace Wilfredo Laboy, who had stepped down and was later convicted of embezzlement.

Many educators and elected officials across Massachusetts are closely watching to see whether the state will have better luck in its second attempt to turn around the Lawrence schools. The state provided hands-on supervision from 1997 to 2005 and approved the hiring of Laboy.

Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said it remains unclear when Lawrence will exit receivership.

“There’s no question turning around a school is tough work, and turning around a school district is even tougher,’’ said Chester. “Having said that, the signs are very positive and encouraging.”

Mayor Daniel Rivera said the state’s intervention hardly feels like a receivership, crediting Riley with fostering collaboration. “He acts less like a leader of an occupation force and more like someone who is from here,” Rivera said. “We could have had turmoil and upheaval and little accomplishment. . . . At the end of the day, kids are learning, and the MCAS will show that out.”

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Veronica Soto, who grew up in Lawrence and has two children at the Wetherbee K-8 School, said she is impressed with the added rigor.

“They work hard in keeping kids focused and preparing them for the MCAS,” she said. “The homework is challenging them more, but not to the point that they give up. . . . People feel more proud to be part of the system.”

There have been bumps along the way, though. Early on, Riley upset the teachers union by firing some teachers. Tensions arose as contract negotiations dragged on for more than two years before a deal was struck this year.

Otherwise, relationships between Riley and the teachers union have been good, said union president Frank McLaughlin, who contends corrupt politicians and not poor academic performance landed the system in receivership.

“Lawrence is a gateway city, the new Ellis Island,” McLaughlin said. “We have a student population that primarily comes from the Dominican Republic who are here looking for what our parents wanted, the American Dream.”

The Leonard was among the worst schools in the city when the state came in, prompting Riley to bring in UP Education Network, an education nonprofit, to help run the school. It is one of several schools overseen by a partner, including one operated by the city’s teachers union.

The school eventually replaced all its teachers, extended its hours, overhauled academic programs, instituted uniforms, and set strict discipline policies. Test scores are climbing and discipline problems are dropping, even as a steady flow of immigrant students enroll during the school year.

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Mariallette Batista, an eighth-grader, arrived at the Leonard two years ago from the Dominican Republic not knowing how to speak English.

“The first thing I recognize was that every teacher was supporting me, showing me how to do homework and telling me never to give up,” Batista said.

On the other side of Broadway, the Guilmette Elementary School is achieving so much academic growth the state considers it among the best in Massachusetts.

Principal Lori Butterfield said a big factor in the school’s success was the power to “organically” develop an educational plan, rather than following districtwide mandated curriculums. The apprehension that many teachers and administrators had about receivership has subsided, she said.

“The last two or three years have been the best experience in my professional career,” said Butterfield. “It’s not like Jeff came in and said everything was bad. Largely, it was what’s working and what can we do to build that up. That was a surprise. Schools got empowered.”


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