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    Intractable school challenges awaiting state’s new education commissioner

    Jeffrey Riley’s emphasis on teamwork has set him apart in an era of education reform when many policymakers and business executives yearn for education leaders who will disrupt the status quo, often with top-down mandates.
    Barry Chin/Globe staff
    Jeffrey Riley’s emphasis on teamwork has set him apart in an era of education reform when many policymakers and business executives yearn for education leaders who will disrupt the status quo, often with top-down mandates.

    When Jeffrey Riley came in as the state-appointed superintendent of the Lawrence Public Schools six years ago, he had the power to dramatically shake up the system to boost student achievement. He got rid of half the principals and brought in some charter-school operators.

    But there was no mass firing of teachers or widespread school closures.

    Instead, the one-time philosophy major largely stressed collaboration. He appealed to his staff’s conscience to do what was best for their students. He empowered schools to create strategies to help students succeed — avoiding top-down mandates — while he held teachers and administrators accountable for results.

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    Riley’s work in Lawrence, which led to a notable rise in academic achievement, has won him much respect and helped catapult him last week to a new job as the state’s next commissioner of elementary and secondary education.

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    Now, educators, parents, and advocates are anxiously waiting to see how Riley, 46, will tackle some of the state’s most stubborn problems: persistent achievement gaps among students, schools struggling academically and financially, and polarizing acrimony between traditional schools and charters.

    “I think he will be the ideal person to steer the educational ship in a way that is supportive rather than becoming an obstacle or a distraction,” said Paul Reville, who served as education secretary under former governor Deval Patrick.

    Riley’s emphasis on teamwork sets him apart in an era of education reform when many policymakers and business executives nationwide yearn for education leaders who will disrupt the status quo, often with top-down mandates. Just last week, the Los Angeles School Board said it wants a new superintendent who will create “disruption.”

    But in Massachusetts many policy makers believe educational progress has hit gridlock amid polarizing debates over charter-school expansion, teacher-evaluation overhauls, and school takeovers. Often caught in the middle are the very students the warring sides are trying to help.

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    Easing that toxic atmosphere featured prominently in the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s 8-3 vote last week to select Riley as commissioner. His support transcended wide ideological differences, receiving votes from a teachers union leader who sat across the negotiating table from Riley in Lawrence and from a former education policy adviser to Mitt Romney during his presidential run.

    His selection wasn’t without controversy. Three members who voted against him preferred a high-ranking Latina education official from New York. A woman has never served as commissioner of the department.

    And some educators who are critical of independently run charter schools will probably remain skeptical of Riley because of his willingness to partner with them.

    Riley, who has two children in Boston schools, said in an interview his first priority will be to hold conversations with superintendents, teachers unions, parents, and students.

    “One thing you will see from me is this idea of supporting and elevating teachers,” he said. “They are in the trenches doing the work.”

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    In his six years in Lawrence, Riley achieved impressive results by some measures. Graduation rates rose 19 percentage points to 71.4 percent; 10th-grade math and English scores increased by 18 and 24 percentage points, respectively. The number of highly rated schools under the state’s accountability system rose from two to 10.

    But test scores and graduation rates continue to lag behind state averages.

    The results have attracted researchers who have wondered how Riley achieved success when other state takeovers nationwide have failed. One thing Riley had was support from local politicians: Former mayor William Lantigua welcomed receivership and his successor, Mayor Dan Rivera, has enthusiastically supported Riley.

    By contrast, most state takeovers spark uproars.

    “It’s hard to say if you stuck Jeff in a different context if the same results would happen,” said Beth Schueler, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government who has studied Lawrence’s receivership. “Context matters.”

    Frank McLaughlin, president of the Lawrence Teachers Union, said the school system is in a much better place than it was a decade ago.

    “It’s more focused on children, it’s more honest, and it’s better managed, but it does lack resources,” McLaughlin said.

    McLaughlin said he and Riley have had a good relationship, but occasionally have disagreed, such as not renewing teachers with limited experience and closing the Lawrence High School library.

    Other issues have emerged as well. Teresita Ramos, an attorney in Lawrence, has clashed with the school system for failing to provide translated documents and interpreters to non-English-speaking parents whose children have disabilities, resulting in a federal complaint. Lawrence is now contracting with an outside organization for translation services.

    “While I have been critical of his work in the past, I do think his heart is in the right place,” she said. “I hope he uses this experience and compels other districts to do what they need to do.”

    The son of a Marine, Riley graduated from Belmont High School. He started his career in education at a Baltimore middle school as a special-education teacher through Teach for America, a national organization that places recent college graduates in classrooms.

    He later worked as a counselor at an alternative school in Brockton and principal at Tyngsborough Middle School.

    Riley first attracted statewide attention for school turnaround work a decade ago as principal at Edwards Middle School in Charlestown. When he arrived in 2007, the school had recently lengthened its day by two hours, and Riley brought the school to new heights by honing in on each student’s academic performance.

    Working with teachers and administrators in his office, he used magnets on a board to chronicle each student’s performance in English and math and grouped students together for extra help. He also made sure students participated in music, art, dance, athletics, and other activities, because he wanted them to like school and be well-rounded, and brought in programs to tend to their social and emotional well-being.

    School enrollment rapidly climbed, as did MCAS scores.

    “People were excited we were all working together to get kids what they needed,” said Ted Chambers, a teacher and union representative at Edwards Middle School. “I think what Jeff really gets is that the average teacher who works in urban education really cares and works hard, and he appeals to that sense of mission that we all bring into this job.”

    Impressed, then-superintendent Carol Johnson promoted him to the central offices. A key initiative was replicating across the district one-week academic vacation camps that he started at Edwards for struggling students and were effective in boosting MCAS scores. (He later brought those to Lawrence.)

    Chris Gabrieli, co-founder and chief executive of Empower Schools, a Boston nonprofit, who has worked with Riley for a decade, said Riley has been defying the odds throughout his career.

    “The question when Jeff left Boston was, could he have the same success with the 13,000 students in Lawrence that he had at the Edwards, and now the question is can he pull it off for 1 million students,” said Gabrieli. “But if you believe past performance is a predictor for future success, he should have a lot of success.”

    James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com.