We were pleased to learn yesterday that the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has appointed Jeffrey Riley to head up the turnaround efforts at one of the state’s most underperforming districts, the Lawrence Public Schools.
Before I explain why we are excited by this choice, a little context is in order. The district of Lawrence, located in the northeastern corner of the state near the border with New Hampshire, is home to one of the poorest and highest immigrant populations in the state. Almost nine in 10 students
qualify as low-income, and almost a quarter of them are limited English proficient. In short, Lawrence students come in to school with huge disadvantages. Performance on the state’s assessment (MCAS) has been low and has plateaued
over the last few years, with growth measures in the bottom half of the state.
It is this low performance—combined with the near-tragic situation of the former superintendent indicted
on embezzlement charges—that led the State Board of Education to take over the district in late November. A takeover by the state means that the state has the right to install a new leader that reports directly to the State Commissioner of Education, rather than the city’s school committee. At the time of the decision, the Commissioner, Mitchell Chester, explained that this drastic action was necessary. “I do believe that nothing short of a profound re-looking of how we do business in Lawrence will get the job done,” Chester said.
Less than two months later, Commissioner Chester announced the hiring of Riley to fill this position that, obviously, is fraught with many, many challenges. Riley comes to the position with nearly twenty years experience in education, as a teacher, principal and district administrator. Jeff first came to our attention as the principal at the Clarence Edwards Middle School in Boston in 2007 – 2009. As I’ve written before, the Edwards is a real success story
that demonstrates the kind of deep and lasting change that can come about when expanded time opens up new possibilities for programming and individualizing learning.
Without a doubt, Jeff is a large part of why the Edwards has been so effective. His strong vision for how to leverage additional time to optimize learning has become a model for other schools in the Expanded Learning Time Initiative and, indeed, throughout the country. (In particular, his system of daily small-group tutoring classes to help students overcome particular learning deficits—sessions that were possible only with the expansion of the school day—has been a very popular innovation.) But what ultimately made Jeff so successful at the Edwards was his laser-like focus on the only thing that matters: the students. Jeff was able to rally the teachers to support his vision because they saw quickly that he was not interested in making changes unless they would have a direct impact on student learning, and educators could hardly ask for anything more of their principal.
Now, as he heads up the Lawrence Public Schools, we are confident that Jeff will bring that same intensity of vision and purpose to the students of Lawrence.