fb-pixel Skip to main content

LAWRENCE — Governor-elect Charlie Baker won laughs and scored points with an auditorium full of students when he name-dropped several popular movies — “Frozen” anyone? — Wednesday in the Robert L. Frost Educational Complex, where he kicked off a statewide tour to revisit institutions from Boston to Pittsfield that he had come to on the campaign trail.

Baker said he is returning to schools, museums, and community centers during the week he will be installed as the 72d governor of Massachusetts to emphasize how they created innovative solutions to the problems they faced. In Lawrence, it was student achievement. The school system, in state receivership, is moving from being one of worst in the state as test scores improve.

Advertisement



“We want to be an administration that focuses on what works,” he told more than 500 students, staff, and administrators. “We should all want to do more of what works, and the reason that we’re here today is because what you are doing here . . . works.”

And so, the day before the pageantry that comes with inauguration, Baker visited a seventh-grade science classroom and sat in a school auditorium with his wife, Lauren, Lieutenant Governor-elect Karyn Polito, James Peyser, who is the incoming secretary of education, and Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera.

“I never met such a powerful man like that before,” said 13-year-old Antonio Lebron, who admitted that having the governor-elect stoop beside him and peer through a microscope was more than a bit nerve-racking.

“So I have a question for you guys,” Baker told Antonio’s class. “How many people say science is your favorite class?”

Eleven hands went into the air.

“That’s about half. That’s pretty great,” he said. “I fought my way through science, and it fought its way through me.”

During the assembly, Baker applauded enthusiastically as budding thespians performed renditions of Shakespeare’s classic “Romeo and Juliet” and the modern musical “Seussical.” He dropped pop culture references from “Frozen” to “Drumline” — even mentioning the names of the leading actors — when lauding the musical selections.

Advertisement



The laughs — and gasps — came when the 58-year-old politician said he graduated from elementary school 46 years ago.

“Yeah, I know,” he said.

But the larger point Baker said he wanted to make was that their teachers and principals will make an impression much the same way his did.

“This is where it starts, boys and girls. This is where you lay the foundation for your future,” he said. “You folks are part of something that may seem kind of funny for me to say to you today, but you carry it with you for the rest of your lives.”

Three years ago, the state took control of the Lawrence school system, where more than 90 percent of the 13,800 students are Latino and 89 percent come from low-income households. Test scores were low and the district, according to a state report, had widespread management problems.

But a bevy of activity throughout the district is bringing about change and improvement.

“Lawrence has tripled the number of Level 1 schools since 2012,” said Ellen Baranowski, principal of the Frost Middle School, which gained the state’s top designation for academic performance that year. “We are often asked how we do it, and often my reply is always the same: a dedicated staff, committed parents, great students.”

Advertisement



But, she added, a superintendent, who in this case is the state-appointed receiver and gives staff the autonomy to make decisions, is another ingredient for success.

Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said new approaches to governance, student learning time, work rules, compensation, and the relationship between the central office and its schools are key, too.

“Places like Lawrence are demonstrating that poverty is not destiny, and we can do better by students who historically have been underserved,” he said, while cautioning that there is still work to be done.

A persistent gap in achievement remains among students of varying racial, ethnic, income, and language backgrounds, he said. There are also gaps in graduation rates and employment status once a high school diploma is earned, he said.

Students are aware of their school’s — and city’s — challenges but insist they are more than test scores and perception.

“A lot of people think Lawrence is an ordinary ghetto place,” eighth-grader Laura Tejada said after the hourlong assembly ended.

“It’s more than that,” classmate Barbara Batista chimed in. “In this school, we are like a family, and I think people should see that instead of just thinking it’s a rundown place with guns and stuff like that.”

So, the girls wrote a poem titled “We are the Frost,” which they read at the assembly.

The poem describes things ubiquitous to middle school and unique to Frost — floors that squeak on rainy days, lockers that never seem to hold enough, extended school days, and Saturday classes.

Advertisement



“We are from hard work, determination, responsibility, and dedication,” the girls read. “We are a proud family, but we are humble too.”


Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.