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New Lessons from the Lawrence Turnaround Story

Back from the Brink, our 2015 case study of Lawrence Public Schools, documents the story behind the first school district in Massachusetts to enter into state receivership. In the first three years of receivership, a series of sweeping changes in school leadership, school governance, targeted student support, and central office structures catalyzed dramatic improvements in student outcomes.

But a lot can happen in a year, so we checked in with Lawrence Receiver Jeff Riley and Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester to get an update on Lawrence and find out what we can learn about state turnaround from their journey. We’ve drawn three important lessons from our conversation that are particularly important today, as states begin to rethink their approach to turnaround under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). 

Progress Continues in Lawrence

Student outcomes in Lawrence continue to improve, and we are pleased to report the following achievements in Lawrence from the 2015- 2016 school year:

  • Graduation rate rose to 71.8%, a total increase of 19.5 percentage points since state receivership began
  • Three new schools designated as Level 1 (the highest designation in Massachusetts), bringing the total number of Level 1 schools to ten, compared with only two schools in 2012

Although 2015-2016 test results won’t be available until later this fall, district and state leaders are optimistic that this positive trend continues. 

Learning from Lawrence

Lesson #1: Flexibility and Autonomy

Local leadership needs to have the flexibility and control required to make the difficult but necessary changes to create sustainable, scalable improvements.

In Lawrence’s turnaround approach, school leaders are critical to driving rapid change—not only to guide the overall direction of the school but also to attract and retain effective teachers. Riley needed to make sure he had the best people for the job, so he assessed and interviewed all principals. Increased flexibility and control enabled Riley to replace 35% of the principals in Lawrence in the first year of receivership. 

Consistent with the theme of “getting the right people” into the district, Riley aggressively brought in external partners to support the district’s lowest-performing schools. Under receivership, LPS was able to take the unusual step of recruiting nonprofit school management operators with proven experience running urban schools to step in and take over two of Lawrence’s Level 4 schools and set up a new alternative high school program.

With the leadership in place, Riley needed to ensure he supported the teachers of Lawrence. LPS teachers had been working without a contract since SY 2011-2012 and had not received a cost-of-living adjustment in three years. Receivership gave Riley the authority to unilaterally impose a contract, but instead he worked with the Lawrence Teachers’ Union to develop an agreement that would be acceptable to both sides. This process, which took more than a year, ultimately led to a mutually agreeable and groundbreaking contract that provided teachers with more career opportunities, and with them, the potential for much higher salaries.

Lesson #2: One Size Does Not Fit All

One size doesn’t fit all—each district and each school faces different challenges, and turnaround interventions need to be tailored to the specific situation.

In the beginning, Lawrence leaders primarily focused on changes in K-8 schools. Now, they are expanding their focus to high school. In SY 2014- 2015, Lawrence introduced the 9th grade academy to to provide more structure and greater academic supports during the challenging transition from eighth grade to high school. The 10thgrade academy began this school year with a similar mission. When Lawrence expands the focus to 11th and 12th grades, they will focus attention away from seat time toward experiential learning, guiding students toward dual-enrollment, internships, and becoming self-advocates for their learning.

Since LPS was placed in receivership, Massachusetts has begun interventions in two more districts, tailoring each to the unique challenges of those communities. In Springfield, the Commonwealth brought Empower Schools in to take over the middle schools in a turnaround effort. In the central Massachusetts city of Holyoke, the district faces significant budget pressures, and does not have access to the rich teacher and leader talent pool around metropolitan Boston, so efforts are focusing on ways to maximize the resources that Holyoke currently has available. 

Lesson #3: Long-Term Commitment and Support

Long-term commitment and support from the state and district leadership are essential to success.

As Lawrence begins to shed its “struggling district” moniker, Riley and Chester are quick to point out that as pleased as they are with the progress that has been made in Lawrence, there is still a long way to go. Riley’s goals are clear: “I want our students to have access to everything that the kids in the affluent Boston suburbs have in their schools—from great academics, to music, art, drama, and sports.” They stress that moving from “failing to good” is very different than moving from “good to great.” For Lawrence, this includes developing a holistic approach that provides students with opportunities to excel within and beyond the classroom. This is the fifth year of receivership for Lawrence, and the district is still evolving. Lawrence’s experience underscores the fact that just one or two years of a focused turnaround is not enough. 

Moving Forward: School Turnaround Under ESSA

ESSA provides an opportunity for states to rethink how they support struggling districts and schools. ERS and the Center for American Progress drew on turnaround experiences in Massachusetts, Colorado, Tennessee, and Louisiana to create a guide for state policymakers: 7 Tenets for Sustainable School Turnaround. Under ESSA, states have the opportunity to make districts the unit of change, provide multiyear resources, support turnaround leaders, rigorously evaluate progress, and more. If Lawrence is any indication, when districts are empowered with flexibility, autonomy, and support, they can make a big difference for kids.

New Lessons from the Lawrence Turnaround Story
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