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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Update on Accountability and Assistance Work with Fall River Public Schools

To:
Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
From:
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
Date:
September 10, 2010

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This report describes the work of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (Department or ESE), through our Centers for Targeted Assistance and School and District Accountability, with the Fall River Public Schools since January 2009. In January, I will receive a final report from ESE's accountability monitor on the progress made by the Fall River Public Schools to address chronic, systemic weaknesses that are resulting in continued poor student achievement. That report will be a basis for the recommendation I will make concerning the district's future accountability status. This update is intended to provide the Board with background information to enable members to pose questions and offer suggestions in advance of my recommendation.

History

Fall River has had a long history of low student achievement with one of the highest drop-out rates in the state, and documented district management issues in 2002, 2003, and 2006 district review reports conducted by the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability.

In January 2009, Fall River Mayor Robert Correia requested and I agreed to have ESE send a review team to the Fall River Public Schools to evaluate leadership and resource management in the district. Our team reviewed student achievement data and documents provided by the district prior to conducting interviews and classroom observations in Fall River in January 2009.

The review revealed significant weaknesses in the Fall River Public Schools.

  • In the area of leadership, the team found that inadequate delineation of roles and responsibilities between the superintendent and school committee was deterring effective district leadership and undermining community support; that principals receive insufficient support from the central office; that the failure of the district to evaluate its programs and services left it unable to improve them; and that the district's human resources department lacked professional leadership as well as effective systems, structures, and procedures.
  • In the area of resource management, it found that the district lacked adequate financial systems and procedures; and that Fall River would not meet its Net School Spending requirement for fiscal year 2009, its school appropriation having declined between fiscal year 2008 and fiscal year 2009.
  • Other weaknesses in the district included deficiencies in the evaluation of staff, from the superintendent on down; lack of strategic alignment among school committee actions, the central office's improvement plan, and schools' improvement plans; lack of effective leadership and adequate support for programs for English language learners and students with disabilities; lack of adequate and affordable transportation, especially for high school students; and the part-time status of the school department's chief financial officer.

These findings led to recommendations in four areas: school committee governance; strategic implementation of improvements to teaching and learning; human resource management; and financial management. Among them were recommendations that the school committee build its capacity to function as a responsible governance team; that the district develop a District Improvement Plan accepted by all members of the school community; that leadership identify, advocate for, and protect resources needed for improvement; that the district provide principals with the resources they need; that the district implement sound evaluation procedures; and that an external audit of the district's finances be conducted as soon as possible. The team recommended that ESE, while providing guidance and technical assistance, use its authority to monitor the district to ensure that it makes progress in the four areas covered by the recommendations.

In my transmittal letter to Mayor Robert Correia, I stated that the "report paints a sobering picture of a school district with persistent, serious and systemic problems. Despite this picture, I am heartened by the initiative that you took to request the review." I directed the Fall River Public Schools to develop a Recovery Plan with direction from the Department that addressed the deficiencies identified in the Report, identify benchmarks of progress for which the district would be held accountable, and specify the assistance that would be needed.

The Fall River Recovery Plan was submitted on July 15, 2009. In my August 14, 2009 response to the Mayor, I identified nine additional conditions that needed to be added to the Recovery Plan.

With assistance from the Department, the Fall River superintendent and school committee revised, approved, and submitted a new Recovery Plan by the deadline of September 30, 2009. The Plan is guiding the work of recovery of the Fall River Public Schools.

Monitoring and Review

The Department named Dr. Joan Connolly as our Accountability Monitor for Fall River. Dr. Connolly has completed two Progress Reports describing the district's progress in implementing its Recovery Plan. The Progress Report for the period from September 2009-December 2009 noted that:

The Administration of the Fall River Public Schools, under the leadership of Superintendent Meg Mayo-Brown, with guidance and support from DESE, has worked relentlessly to meet the benchmarks and deadlines in the initial stages of implementation of the Recovery Plan. They are demonstrating the willingness to think, plan and act in a focused and strategic manner as they take on the enormous responsibility of working in all four areas of concern at the same time. While each section of the Recovery Plan is separate and distinct with its own series of Strategies and Action Steps, they are also connected in that the absence of movement in any one area is bound to have an impact on other areas. For example, if there are not clearly designed protocols for hiring competent staff in a timely manner under the Human Resources side of the school system, the challenges facing the schools in improving student achievement cannot be met. For this reporting period, with few exceptions, progress has been noted on the majority of Action Steps in the four sections of the Recovery Plan…
It is important to note that these early stages of the work include many instances where the action is to put in place a system, process or way of accomplishing a strategy or a piece of a strategy. Now that many of these systems and processes are in place and/or committees set up, the real work of change and improvement begins. The implementation and embedding of these systems and ways of working into the day to day business of the Fall River Public Schools must be understood and owned by every staff member and elected official who works on behalf of the children of Fall River.

The Monitor assessed the level of implementation for each Action Step noted in the district's Recovery Plan. In the first reporting period, 5% of the Action Steps were rated as "un-developed," meaning the district did not take any of the intended steps to accomplish its goal. 14% of the Action Steps were rated as "under-developed," meaning the district took some steps, but did not complete its benchmark goal. 56% were in the developing phase, meaning only foundational work had begun. 25% were assessed as "practices in place," and none were found to be "sustainable and embedded." A two-person team from the Department met with the Fall River School Committee in March 2010 to discuss the report. Dr. Connolly explained in the report that the district's work at this point was "largely foundational," and "necessary but not sufficient to raise student achievement."

The second Progress Report, covering the period January 2010 through June 2010, noted several priority areas in need of more rapid progress: (1) the work of the school committee in developing its policy guide and implementing an evaluation process for the superintendent; (2) alignment between district and school leadership efforts as described in part by various unaligned plans such as the draft Strategic Plan, District Improvement Plan, School Improvement Plans and Corrective Action Plan; (3) full implementation in the fall of the district's newly developed curriculum; (4) compliance with civil rights and other requirements for English Language Learners and in career and vocational-technical education as identified in the Coordinated Program Review; (5) implementation of supervision and evaluation instruments for all personnel and (6) hiring of a chief financial officer.

In this second reporting period 25% of the Action Steps were rated as "under-developed," 54% as "developing," 22% "in place," and, again, none found "sustainable and embedded." A four-person team from the Department met with the Fall River School Committee in August 2010 when Dr. Connolly presented the second report. Deputy Commissioner Baehr expressed concern about the slow pace of progress and alerted Committee members that the Progress Report covering the period July 2010 through December 2010 will go to the Commissioner and form the basis for his recommendation to the Board of whether Fall River should be designated, as a district, at Level 4 or 5 of the Accountability Framework.

Assistance

The Department's Center for Targeted Assistance is providing support to the Fall River Public Schools through an on-site team of three experienced leaders to consult and actively work with district leadership to strengthen systems that are critical to improving the quality of teaching and learning. One former superintendent works alongside the superintendent in an active role that has been focused on establishing and strengthening leadership for operational systems in the areas of human resources and fiscal oversight. A second former superintendent works with the school committee to strengthen its operating practices and communication between the superintendent, the school committee and other constituents in the district. He has supported the design and implementation of the school committee's process for evaluating the superintendent's performance. A third former superintendent has worked with central office staff members to support the development of methods for strengthening instructional leadership and curricular systems that support changes to teaching and learning.

In addition to the three professionals noted above, the Department has assigned a liaison from its office of Urban District Assistance to provide a direct link between the district and ESE's resources and support. The liaison has served as point-person by working with the district to draft a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to frame improvement funding and direct assistance. As part of direct assistance to Fall River, the liaison has participated in district discussions and key meetings to act on district needs and to coordinate assistance, both through ESE's internal staff members and outside consultants. Such assistance has included trainings for Fall River staff in utilizing the Data Warehouse and understanding the Growth Model, professional development to give Fall River leadership and staff a better understanding of different question types such as open response on the MCAS, and ongoing discussions to strengthen structures to support English Language Learners.

The Department is also continuing to provide support for Fall River's Level 4 schools through a variety of grants and with new opportunities for technical assistance currently being developed by the Department.

Next Steps

Upon my review of the Department's final monitoring report in January 2010, I will make a formal recommendation to the Board regarding the accountability status of the Fall River Public Schools



Last Updated: September 16, 2010
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