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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Level 4 District Reviews

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
March 16, 2011



At the March 22 Board meeting I will present the reviews completed this year of each of the four districts identified by the Board as "underperforming"/Level 4: Gill-Montague, Holyoke, Randolph and Southbridge. This is the third Board discussion this year regarding Level 4 districts. At the September 2010 Board meeting I provided background on the Department's accountability and assistance work with Level 4 districts. During the February 2011 Board meeting I provided information on the district review process. This month I will also update the Board on the intervention and assistance the Department is providing for each of these districts.

No action is required at the March meeting.

Level 4 District Placement and Assessment

In April 2010, the Board adopted comprehensive new regulations for underperforming schools and districts consistent with the January 2010 Act Relative to the Achievement Gap that revised the state statutes on underperforming schools and districts. The regulations were developed in consultation with the Accountability and Assistance Advisory Council (AAAC) established by Mass. Gen. Laws Chapter 15, Section 55A in 2008, and provided the basis for the Framework for Accountability and Assistance. As shown in the Framework (Attachment #1), districts are placed in Level 4 as a result of (1) systemic district weaknesses identified by a district review, and/or (2) inadequate school performance - having at least one school that is placed in Level 4 because of low levels of absolute achievement, annual growth rate, and/or improvement trend as measured by MCAS, as well as graduation rate in the case of high schools.

Today, we are discussing the districts that were placed at Level 4 because a district review revealed concerns that are obstacles to school system improvement. All four of the districts placed in Level 4 status because of district weaknesses were designated "underperforming" pursuant to the laws and regulations at that time, prior to the establishment of the Framework for Accountability and Assistance.

The districts in Level 4 as a result of a district review are Holyoke (designated in 2003), Southbridge (designated in 2004), Gill-Montague Regional School District (designated in 2006), and Randolph Public Schools (designated in 2007). The Board has received annual updates on progress for each district in implementing its "turnaround plans." Winchendon, which was designated as underperforming in 2003, is the only district removed from underperforming status (in 2008) based on the progress it had achieved in improving systems and student achievement. The new regulations clarify that districts may be considered for reassignment from Level 4 to Level 3 if systems and practices are substantially improved, or from Level 4 to Level 5 if the district requires more intense intervention to improve its systems and student achievement. The new regulations also outline the process for a district in Level 4 to be monitored and periodically reviewed. To provide the Commissioner and the Board with information designed to inform the district determination, the Level 4 District Review Process employs a protocol (Attachment #2) developed to answer four key questions:

  1. How has the district addressed the issues that placed it in Level 4?
  2. Is student achievement on the rise?
  3. Do the district and schools have strong systems and practices in place?
  4. Has the district built the capacity to maintain continuous improvement on its own, without continued DESE Targeted Assistance support and intervention?

Because the Gill-Montague Regional School District had been placed under the Department's fiscal oversight, a fifth Key Question was added in an addendum:

  1. Does the district have the resources needed to implement a Turnaround Plan effectively?

An overview of the review findings for each Level 4 district is found in Attachment #3. Complete review reports for Level 4 districts are also attached. Attachment #4 is the report of the Southbridge Review conducted in February 2010. Attachment #5 is the report of the Gill-Montague Review conducted in September 2010. Attachment #6 is the report of the Holyoke Review conducted in October 2010. Attachment #7 is the report of the Randolph Review conducted in October 2010.

Assessment of Level 4 Districts

It is my judgment that each district should remain in Level 4 at this time and cooperate with us as we roll out our strategy for accelerating improvements to student performance in Level 4 districts. As outlined under "Next Steps," the district will focus its planning and implementation efforts in addressing the critical areas addressed in the district review. The response of each district to this strategy and the plan management process over the next year will be crucial to my determination whether one of these districts should be named a Level 5 or moved to Level 3. The accelerated improvement process allows for differentiated approaches for the four Level 4 districts, each of which warrants attention for different reasons.

The district with the most chronic issues is Holyoke Public Schools. More than seven years have passed since the Board used its authority to declare Holyoke Public Schools as the first underperforming district in the Commonwealth. This district remains among the lowest performing systems in the Commonwealth and the rate of increase in student achievement over time is too slow to substantially narrow the large gap between Holyoke and the state. Even with much work and investment to address chronic systemic issues, the district has not systematically carried out many of the initiatives in the turnaround plan. Instructional quality is uneven and insufficient horizontal and grade-to-grade curriculum alignment creates gaps and redundancies in teaching. Inequities exist among district schools and classrooms, in student/teacher ratios, and class size. Practitioners are not yet sufficiently supported by the district in using data to identify instructional and non-academic needs of students, and in the provision of systemic support programs and services needed to reduce barriers to learning. While the degree of expertise needed to improve student achievement is higher in a district with high-need students, the district has not invested enough to develop its human capital through supervision and professional development. Unfortunately, much like the last review in 2009, the 2010-2011 review found that instructional monitoring and feedback was still inadequate, and professional development was not strategically delivered to improve teachers' skills and content knowledge.

There have been a number of new developments in Holyoke in the past few months that I plan to watch closely over the next year to gauge the potential for Holyoke to address its chronic issues with the more focused assistance now being made available to Level 4 districts. The new superintendent in Holyoke this year was interviewed by members of my senior staff last school year prior to his appointment. He is participating in the "New Superintendents Induction Program" launched in August 2010 by the Department and the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. He has been working closely with the Department to prioritize needed improvements. The district leadership team has focused on leading the charge to develop Turnaround Plans that meet my approval for the two Level 4 schools in Holyoke-Dean Vocational Technical High School and Morgan Elementary School. The district was successful in its grant application for school redesign funding for both schools: $1,275,000 to transform Morgan Elementary and $1,650,000 to restart Dean Vocational Technical High School in partnership with an educational management organization. The plan for the Morgan school builds upon the successful full service community school model of its William Peck School (K-8). The review team found that in this school, "parents, faculty, students, and community allies work together strategically to address the needs of students and families, resulting in significant academic gains. This promising pattern of growth is becoming a model to other educators in the district." While much more work is needed in Holyoke, our strategy for Level 4 districts, explained later under "Next Steps", holds promise for a district, like Holyoke, in which district administrators are now demonstrating a willingness to work in close partnership with Department staff to undertake more focused planning and close monitoring of progress.

Gill-Montague has been in Level 4 for five years. Although its achievement is the highest of the Level 4 districts - with notable improvements in math but flat performance in ELA - the district's work to implement the turnaround plan has not effectively brought all stakeholders together to address systemic weaknesses that threaten to undermine the system. When the review team visited the district this fall, it found that the Gill-Montague Regional School Committee has not been effective in advocating for the budget, carrying out its governance role, and creating a culture of collaboration in which stakeholder groups focus on students and their learning needs. Central office staff was not well deployed to support school needs, and teachers were not well supported to meet student needs with the prerequisite tools such as an aligned system of curriculum and assessments and the necessary time for professional development. Instructional quality suffers as a result. The district has established some high quality social development and support programs that meet social-emotional needs and has created a climate conducive to learning, but even these programs are threatened, like other key system initiatives, for financial reasons. Shortcomings in the district's ability to evaluate the costs and effectiveness of its programs, allocate resources strategically toward the turnaround efforts, and identify areas for cost savings have compounded its fiscal challenges. I recently released Gill-Montague from fiscal oversight by the Department because the towns were able to agree on a budget after several years of budget impasses, but I remain concerned that the district does not yet have the capacity to address its ongoing challenges without the level of support targeted to Level 4 districts.

Southbridge has demonstrated significant progress in developing its capacity to address student needs after almost seven years in underperforming status. Most of the work of the current turnaround plan has been completed, having focused the district in establishing systems for curriculum, instruction, assessment, professional development, and financial management. There is effective collaboration between the school and town to fund and support education. However, instructional practice at all levels is not as strong as it should be, the district is at the beginning stage of embedding and evaluating interventions for at-risk students, and student performance is not strong enough to indicate a clear improvement trend. Further, special education students and English language learners lag behind. The district may need to continue expanding its resident expertise and capacity given demographic shifts and the emergence of an increasingly diverse student body, before systemic improvements can keep pace with student needs. The review team was optimistic about the district's ability to make continued progress at the time of the visit, which was before the retirement of the previous superintendent. The Department participated in the search and interview process for the current superintendent to support the Southbridge School Committee in selecting a candidate well-suited to continue leading the district's change process.

Randolph has been in Level 4 for four years and has made a concerted and largely successful effort to address the issues that led to the Board's decision to declare the district "underperforming." ELA and mathematics achievement has improved, and the rate of student growth is impressive. The improvement can be credited to hard collaborative work on the part of the school district and town officials. At the time of the review, the new school superintendent was using a grass roots approach for strategic planning with a focus on quality teaching and learning. The district has taken significant steps to develop and implement a standards-based curriculum, and work continues. Classroom instruction along with teacher support is still a needed focus, and the needs of special education students and English language learners have not yet received sufficient attention. The district is poised to address these issues through strong leadership emphasis and a culture focused on student outcomes that teachers and administrators have been creating together. Teachers collaborate to review data, examine student work, and refine classroom strategies. Teacher recruitment is aimed at employing highly qualified, experienced teachers while simultaneously expanding the diversity of the teaching staff, and the district creates the conditions for retaining newly appointed teachers. The school committee, administration, and teachers' association have worked together to identify problems, resolve disputes, and conduct productive collective bargaining sessions. The district has made progress in improving the evaluation and supervision process in terms of timeliness, consistency, and improved methodology. The district has made an effort to sustain consistency in student support programs and has increased family engagement. While there is still work to be done to build on the established foundation in order for Randolph Public Schools to maintain their trajectory of improvement, Randolph's current conditions show tremendous promise. The Department took an active role about a year ago in Randolph's search for a successor to the then retiring superintendent.

Next Steps

The Department has learned that most underperforming districts lack the capacity to prioritize their improvement efforts, implement their plans with focus and urgency, or monitor the results in ways that lead to greater accountability and swift mid-course adjustments. They need substantial support to build these capacities quickly. The Department is now poised to provide that support. This spring each Level 4 district will be supported to develop and implement a sound district plan to rapidly accelerate improvement in instructional practices and student achievement. Described in some detail in Attachment #9, Focused Planning for Accelerating Student Learning links focused plan development with project management support and expertise. The Center for Targeted Assistance will also provide governance and labor management support, technical expertise, and funding designed to support the success of each district in implementing its Plan. The Center for District and School Accountability will conduct quarterly progress monitoring to assess the degree of implementation, the impact of the implementation on adult practices, and the extent to which short and long term benchmark goals have been achieved.

I will provide the Board with regular progress reports on each of these districts. In the case of districts that fail to make progress, I may recommend assignment to Level 5 status. Conversely, in the case of districts that make sufficient and sustained progress in strengthening capacity and accelerating student achievement, I may recommend assignment to Level 3 status. In each case, my recommendation will be informed first and foremost by the extent to which students are being served well.

Deputy Commissioner Karla Baehr and Eva Mitchell, Director of our Center for District and School Accountability, will be present to respond to Board members' questions.


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Attachment #1: Accountability and Assistance Framework
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Attachment #2: Level 4 District Review Protocol (with financial addendum)
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Attachment #3: Summary of findings
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Attachment #9: Focused Planning for Accelerating Student Learning

Last Updated: March 29, 2011
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