Lawrence Public Schools experience offers example for Holyoke

Several years ago, the City of Lawrence's school district, in the state Senate district I represented, was Massachusetts' "most troubled school district" according to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Students in Lawrence faced systemic failures, dismal test scores, and low graduation rates. 

Compounding the problem was near constant bickering by elected officials, community leaders, and the teacher's union, which left the schools in a dire situation and placed Lawrence's children on the back burner.

Holyoke residents, stop me if this sounds familiar.

In Lawrence, we've been in your shoes. We've faced the uncertainty of a receiver running our school system. We know how difficult and unsettling it is for a community to hand the reins over to "outsiders". We know the skepticism that comes with state intervention. 

I am here to offer you hope. 

Much like Holyoke, the situation in Lawrence called for immediate action. Fifth graders ranked 304 out of 306 districts in English skills and 300 in math. Sixth graders ranked 309 out of 311 districts in English and 307 in math. Tenth-graders were dead last among 289 districts in science and math.

When student scores from all grades were combined, 41 percent were proficient or advanced in English while 59 percent needed improvement or were failing. Only 26 percent were proficient or advanced in math while 71 percent needed improvement or were failing. Lawrence's high school had been without accreditation since 1997. A series of superintendents had been hired and fired, and roughly 48 percent of high school students dropped out before graduation.

Some special interest groups tried to cause panic over the idea of a "state takeover" instead of seeing receivership for what it truly is – a new partnership. In Lawrence, we took brave steps forward, expanding what was working and introducing bold new initiatives, including charter school partnerships, that encourage innovation and collaboration in a way that's never been done before. 

Schools are now blossoming.

By 2014, the percentage of students scoring proficient on state exams increased in math, from 26 to 41 percent. Four schools are now ranked Level 1 by the state, and the percentage of students rated proficient or better in Math increased by double digits in grades 3, 5, 8 and 10. Twenty of 24 schools have demonstrated overall improvement in math, while 14 of 24 have demonstrated overall improvement in English.

Graduation rates have increased, and the dropout rate has fallen. Dozens of teens who would have slipped through the cracks are now looking forward to a brighter future. That is a triumph for all of us.

Even more important than the raw numbers are the amazing relationships built on trust and teamwork we have created. Lawrence's Receiver, Jeff Riley, is one of the country's most talented and inspiring education leaders, and he has led us into a new era of achievement. Under Riley's leadership, we have seen what happens when a community rallies around its schools and puts the needs of students ahead of everything else. After spending the day in our schools, American Federation of Teachers President, Randi Weingarten said the new Lawrence system "transformed opportunities for children in an enduring way," and US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called our turnaround "truly remarkable."

It hasn't always been easy. But leadership from all parties put in the effort to build bridges. We've introduced the Lawrence Compact Partnership to bring the best ideas from teachers in traditional public schools and charter schools to the table. We've negotiated a new contract with the union that gives teachers a direct voice in decision making while creating a career ladder with pay incentives based on performance rather than seniority. 

As with Lawrence, the causes of receivership for Holyoke's schools did not happen over night. In truth, it's been more than two decades in the making. With courage and collaboration, community leaders, elected officials, parents, and citizens can come together to put the future of Holyoke's children first. As Secretary Duncan put it, "The lessons for other schools in this state about what is possible is truly profound thanks to the work being done in Lawrence."

I have deep respect for a community's desire to have direct input regarding the education of their children. But, we also have a moral and constitutional obligation to provide children with access to a high quality public education.

Like the children of Lawrence, the children of Holyoke deserve it.

Originally published in the Springfield Republican.

Read the article here.

Barry Finegold was a State Senator representing Lawrence.