Wednesday heralded another transition, but hopefully not a turning point, in Lawrence, which has seen a remarkable educational renaissance over the last six years.
Jeff Riley, the superintendent and receiver who has done so much to drive educational improvement in this Merrimack River city since 2012, announced he would be leaving at school year’s end. A spirit of collaboration had been essential to the effort he led, Riley said.
“We chose to do this work with the people of Lawrence and not to them,” he said, and then, with a nod to a notable high school graduate from Lawrence, Robert Frost, added: “I believe it has been this collaboration — a road less traveled in education reform, I might add — that has made all the difference.”
So how to keep Lawrence’s education improvements on track? State officials said school governance would move to an appointed board like the one that oversees a cluster of underperforming schools in Springfield’s Empowerment Zone partnership. Further, newly reelected mayor Dan Rivera, who just won his rematch — phew! — with former mayor Willie Lantigua, has agreed to serve on the new board. That speaks to Rivera’s political maturity; it would be easy indeed for a mayor to inveigh against, rather than join, such a state-appointed panel.
The announcement was not popular with some community and union activists, who want to see control of the schools revert to the elected, but currently powerless, Lawrence School Committee. One overheated objector even compared the move to colonialism (!) and called shame upon those making the announcement.
Ideologues will be ideologues, but it’s important to recall that, not so long ago, the shame sat squarely on the Lawrence Public Schools, a department whose educational institutions were among the worst in the state. Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy , hired to turn the district around, was instead sent to jail on embezzlement charges. Further, an unfocused and amateurish school committee clearly wasn’t up to the task of catalyzing the changes Lawrence’s kids so desperately needed.
Then, in 2011, the district became the first in Massachusetts to be put into state receivership. Using the tools imparted by the state’s 2010 Achievement Gap Act, Riley negotiated new contracts, extended the school day significantly, weeded out principals and teachers he judged not up to the job, and added arts and enrichment, and intensive vacation-week classes to give students an extra boost. Test scores improved noticeably, with 10th-grade math scores rising 18 percentage points, while English scores increased by 24 percentage points. The district’s high school graduation rate went up 19 percentage points, to 71.4 percent. The annual dropout rate fell by more than half, to 4.2 percent.
Even Lawrence Teachers Union President Frank McLaughlin had some praise for Riley’s efforts, while noting, rightly, that teachers also deserved considerable credit. Asked if he felt pretty positive about the turnaround experience, McLaughlin replied: “I feel positive about it, I don’t feel pretty positive about it, OK?” Fair enough. It is, after all, next to impossible for a teachers union chief to give a wholehearted embrace to any arrangement that impinges at all on collective bargaining rights, job security, or pay structure.
But by any objective analysis, receivership has worked very well for Lawrence, helping make it not just a state success story but also a national one. Further, as we’ve seen in Boston, when it comes to making difficult decisions about improving education, appointed panels work better than elected school committees, which tend to be springboards for attention-seeking, and sometimes clownish, aspiring politicians.
State officials need to make sure the community is well represented on the new board, of course. But an appointed board, and not governance by the school committee, represents the best path here. After all, Lawrence needs to keep its impressive progress on track. It can’t risk returning to the past — or going backward to the future.Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.