learning from Lawrence Acceleration Academies


This is a case study of one of the most powerful learning interventions in Massachusetts. During February and April school vacation weeks, students in grades 3-12 work intensively with exceptional teachers in small, hands-on learning environments. The Acceleration Academies in the Lawrence Public Schools offer critical lessons about teaching and learning for educators, policymakers, and other leaders. 



the story

City View Close.jpg

The Acceleration Academies are but one in a suite of interventions designed by the Lawrence Public Schools to transform the district, but their success embodies many lessons – with implications both for replicating the program in other school districts and for integrating its practices into the regular school day. Many of these practices may not require much additional funding, but what they do require is a significant shift in mindset – on the part of leaders, teachers, students, and parents.

The story of the Lawrence Acceleration Academies illustrates the potential for innovation within a school district beginning with a single intervention whose effects have spread throughout the culture. The Academies have in many ways changed the way school leaders and teachers go about their work and changed the way students and parents understand what's possible. To visit the Acceleration Academies is to be inspired by what can happen when a compelling vision is combined with structures, practices, and habits of mind that bring out the best in everyone.

Starting from the Bottom

In 2011, the Lawrence Public Schools (LPS) ranked in the bottom 1% of districts across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In its analysis of the district, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education found inconsistent instructional quality, unstable leadership, lack of data access and use, and poor student support services. Determining that the only solution was serious intervention, the Board placed LPS under state receivership, meaning that the state would appoint a receiver to oversee an ambitious change process.     

In  2012, Massachusetts Commissioner of Education at the time, Mitchell Chester, appointed Jeff Riley to serve as LPS’s “receiver.” A veteran district and school leader, Riley took on one of the most challenging educational missions in the Commonwealth’s history. After completing his own analysis of the district’s data, systems, and practices, he developed the District Turnaround Plan and began overseeing its implementation.

In the five years since entering state receivership, the district has made impressive progress. State test scores are up in both absolute performance and student growth in English and Mathematics. As of 2016, 10 of the 33 schools in LPS now have the highest-level designation possible – Level 1. The high school graduation rate has increased from 47% in 2010 to 71% in 2016. For students with disabilities the graduation rate was 21% in 2010 and has risen to 51% in 2016. Dropout rates in the district have continued to decline, from 8.6% in 2010 to 4.2% in 2016.

What accounts for this success? In 2016, a Harvard study examined the impact of the first two years of receivership on student achievement. The authors found that one intervention – the Acceleration Academies – was responsible for a large portion of the gains. This is the story of the Acceleration Academies and their extraordinary impact.

The Acceleration Academies are Born

The Acceleration Academies are the brainchild of Jeff Riley, who launched the first Academies when he was a middle school principal in the Boston Public Schools. Though the Boston school was struggling when he first arrived, he discovered a group of strong math teachers. He knew that his students needed some extra time with quality teachers and he wanted to keep the teachers motivated, so he created a fellowship program and flew in a few other outstanding teachers from around the country. Together, they exchanged ideas and worked with students in small groups. This went on for a few years until Riley became a deputy superintendent. In his new role, he decided to expand what he had done in one school to many more in the district. 

Riley created the Sontag Prize in Urban Education, named after a college professor who was a major influence on him. 

The Academies, consisting of a week of intensive learning during the February and April school vacations, were launched at about 10 Boston schools for about 1000 students and were very well received. The program expanded further the following year. Riley is quick to share that the Academies are much more than a typical vacation camp in which teachers can earn some extra money by showing up without much planning or preparation. "It can’t just be a boot camp," said Superintendent Riley. "It’s a very specific program, which is different from some kids showing up for extra help."

Small Intervention, Big Impact

When Riley was recruited by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to be the receiver of the Lawrence Public Schools, he knew that he wanted to bring the Academies concept with him.What began as a pilot in nine schools has now expanded to all but two of the 33 schools in the district. In five years, the program has grown to serve as many as 5,000 students during the February and April school vacation weeks.

The Harvard study used quantitative research methods to compare the academic performance of LPS students with their peers statewide, as well as their peers in similarly low-income districts.The researchers also examined whether the Acceleration Academies in particular had observable impacts on student achievement.They found that participation in the Academies was responsible for a large portion of gains in MCAS math scores, and all of the positive gains in MCAS English Language Arts scores

On the heels of these stunning findings, Riley wanted to better understand why the Acceleration Academies were having such an outsized impact on district performance.He asked New Profit to investigate: 

What are the specific elements of the Academies that drive student achievement and success? 

In collaboration with the Lawrence Public Schools, a team from New Profit spent many months in Lawrence interviewing Riley and his staff, visiting numerous classrooms, and talking with principals, teachers, students, and parents.We believe that what we discovered was well worth sharing with educators, policymakers, philanthropists, and other leaders in Massachusetts and beyond.

The Secret Sauce

The temptation in many fields, including education, is to look for a silver bullet – the magic solution to a sticky problem. In fact, there is no such thing, and we do not mean to suggest that the Academies are a panacea for all that ails a complex system. What we do believe is that the nuanced mix of conditions and resources embedded in the Academies has yielded benefits beyond what might be expected.  

The process of change, especially in a school district in which so many internal and external factors are in play, is challenging to say the least. It is not a sprint to a pre-determined finish line, but rather a marathon to an emergent destination. According to leading change theorists, it is important for a system to experience "small wins" along the way that continue to motivate and energize stakeholders. The Acceleration Academies, by demonstrating that change is possible, has served as an important lever for broader and deeper change in the district. We like to think of the Academies as part of a virtuous cycle of innovation that:

  • develops the conditions in which innovation can occur
  • creates new practices and possibilities
  • enables those practices to scale and spread

As Riley summarized so succinctly in one of our conversations, the goal is to "start small, generate the buzz, show results, and spread things like a virus.”