Lawrence Public Schools (LPS) is a mid-size district serving approximately 13,000 students, almost 92 percent of them of Hispanic origin. In the last few years, district enrollment has increased slightly while the number of students across the state has declined marginally. The demographic characteristic of LPS students have remained largely unchanged over the past five years. While the percentage of students whose first language is not English decreased from approximately 77 percent in 2011 to approximately 70 percent in 2016, the percentage of students designated as English language learners increased by the same magnitude during that time period (from approximately 24 percent to 31 percent).
The number of students with disabilities, that is, those who are on Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) is about 18 percent, a number that is close to the state average. The number of students characterized as high needs, however, is 81.9 percent, much higher than the state average. The number of economically disadvantaged students is 63 percent, which is almost three times as high as the state average. It is clear that many students in the Lawrence Public Schools come to school with needs that require high-impact academic, social and emotional interventions.
A Time of Reckoning
In November 2011, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education placed LPS under state receivership. In 2010, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had established the Framework for Accountability and Assistance, which articulates five levels of district performance, ranging from the highest performers in Level 1 to the lowest performers in Level 5.
With each increasing level comes additional state support and intervention to work with districts to identify areas of need and implement improvement strategies. According to the Achievement Gap Act of 2010, districts that are designated Level 5 by the Massachusetts’ Board of Elementary and Secondary Education go into receivership. This means that the state, led by the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, takes over the district and oversees the design and implementation of its turnaround plan.
LPS was the first district in the state to receive a Level 5 designation. At that time, student MCAS performance in math and English Language Art placed LPS in the bottom one percent of districts across the Commonwealth, with performance declining from the previous year in three-quarters of its schools. Five of the district’s 28 schools were classified as Level 4, and the dropout and 4-year graduation rates – at 8.6 percent and 52 percent, respectively – were woefully far from state averages.
The Department’s 2011 District Review – and later the receiver’s own analysis – also found that the conditions in the district, including inconsistent instructional quality, unstable leadership, lack of data access and use, and insufficient student support services would make it virtually impossible for the district to make meaningful and lasting improvements without significant intervention. Also taken into consideration was community support for receivership, including a request from then-Mayor William Lantigua for the state to take over LPS.
In January 2012, Mitchell Chester, then Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, appointed Jeff Riley to serve as LPS’s Receiver. Riley brought to Lawrence nearly 20 years of experience as a classroom, school, and district leader, most recently serving as Boston Public Schools’ Chief Innovation Officer. During the spring of 2012, Riley completed an extensive analysis of district data, systems, and practices, and with input from the Local Stakeholder Group, developed the District Turnaround Plan. Among the themes that drove the plan were: maximizing the talents of people and partners within the community and across the state; localizing improvement efforts at the school level and promoting a culture of ownership and earned autonomy for the school and broader community; making efficient use of resources and focusing on investments that have direct impact on improving teaching and learning; taking immediate and swift action; and focusing on results.
Specifically, the District Turnaround Plan identifies initiatives aligned with the following strategic objectives:
- Extended time, strategic use of data, and high expectations for academic achievement
- Recruitment, retention, and cultivation of great people and proven partners
- Strengthened support and engagement for students beyond academics
- Increased autonomy and accountability for schools to promote student success
These areas of focus demonstrate a commitment to creating conditions for continuous improvement and educational excellence for all students in LPS. Rather than devise a stopgap approach to pulling LPS out of Level 5, the turnaround plan aims to promote long-term, systemic transformation.
Although receivership gave Riley the authority to bypass nearly all district and union policies, the implementation of the change process and the establishment of the Academies did not depend on receivership. In fact, Superintendent Riley approached the district turnaround, not as dictum from on high, but rather as a collaborative effort among internal stakeholders and external partners. Ultimately, over half of school principals and eight percent of teachers were replaced during the first two years of receivership. At the same time, the central office was reorganized to streamline its function and channel additional resources back to the schools. This balance of prioritizing student outcomes and respecting the work of talented educators likely contributed to the district’s ability to enact immediate changes that have yielded promising early results.
In the five years since receivership, LPS has made tremendous progress as evidenced by the number of schools that have moved into Level 1 status.
As the first Massachusetts district to enter into receivership, there is understandable interest among researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and the public in learning to what extent this intervention can drive sustainable district-wide improvement and ultimately lead to improved student outcomes. In Back from the Brink: How a Bold Vision and a Focus on Resources Can Drive System Improvement, Education Resource Strategies (ERS) presents a case study of LPS’s turnaround efforts, detailing the multi-faceted actions taken during the first two-and-a-half years of receivership. As the report shows, LPS, under Riley’s direction, has undertaken a comprehensive approach to aligning its resources, systems, policies, and practices with its vision for improvements in teaching and learning across the district – and these thoughtful and deliberate changes have contributed to perceptible results.
In 2016, the National Bureau of Economic Research released a study authored by Beth Schueler, Joshua Goodman, and David Deming of Harvard University that examined the impacts of the first two years of receivership on student achievement. Using quantitative research methods, the analysis compared the academic performance of LPS students with their peers statewide, as well as their peers in similarly low-income districts. The study found that the turnaround efforts as a whole appeared to have made positive impacts on student achievement in math, and may have had modest positive effects on English Language Arts achievement as well.
Due to the contribution of the Acceleration Academies to LPS’s goal of providing additional learning time to struggling students – participating students receive an additional 25-30 hours of focused instruction per Academy week – the researchers examined whether this particular initiative had observable impacts on student achievement. They found that participating students made larger gains in math and ELA than non-participating LPS students, as well as students in other districts.
On the heels of these findings, Riley wanted to better understand why the Acceleration Academies were having such an outsized impact on district performance. He asked a team from New Profit to investigate: what are the specific elements of the Academies that drive student achievement and success? This case study explores Riley’s question in earnest.