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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Fall River Progress Report

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

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Background

At the March 22 meeting I will update the Board on the progress of the Fall River Public Schools in meeting the benchmarks and conditions I established in partnership with the district based on the January 2009 district review conducted by the Department's Center for District and School Accountability. I am following up on my commitment to provide the Board with regular progress reports on this Level 4 district. No action is required at the March meeting.

Context

A district review of Fall River Public Schools was conducted by the Center for District and School Accountability in January 2009 following an agreement I established with the mayor to evaluate leadership and resource management in the district. In the wake of the superintendent's resignation, then-Mayor Correia requested the review. The review report identified serious weaknesses in the Fall River Public Schools. The team found inadequate delineation of roles and responsibilities between the superintendent and school committee, which in turn undermined both district leadership and community support; lack of strategic alignment among school committee actions, the central office's improvement plan, and schools' improvement plans; insufficient support from the central office for school leaders; and deficiencies in the evaluation of staff, from the superintendent on down. The team also found inadequate leadership and support for programs for English language learners and students with disabilities, as well as district failure to evaluate its programs and services. The district's human resources department lacked professional leadership as well as effective systems, structures, and procedures. The school department's chief financial officer was part-time and the district lacked adequate financial systems and procedures.

Although the district review was sobering I decided not to recommend an "underperforming"/ Level 4 status at the time because of the level of commitment to addressing district weaknesses as demonstrated by the mayor's initiation of the review. Rather, I directed that the Fall River Public Schools develop a Recovery Plan with direction from the Departments' Center of District and School Accountability that addressed the deficiencies identified in the Report, identified benchmarks of progress for which the district would be held accountable, and specified the assistance that would be provided from the Department's Center for Targeted Assistance. The Fall River Recovery Plan was first submitted on July 15, 2009, subjected to feedback from me and my staff regarding my conditions and expectations for revision, and resubmitted on September 30, 2009. The final plan has been driving the work of the recovery of the Fall River Public Schools.

At the point of our intervention in Fall River, the new Framework for Accountability and Assistance was being drafted. This was prior to the January 2010 Act Relative to the Achievement Gap which revised the state statutes on underperforming schools and districts, and also prior to the Board's adoption of the comprehensive new regulations for underperforming schools and districts in April 2010. There was no formal action taken to identify Fall River as a Level 4 district based on district-wide weaknesses, such as in the four districts previously declared as underperforming and placed on Turnaround Plans. Fall River was the only district placed on a Recovery Plan without designation as a Level 4 district. However, once Level 4 schools were identified, Fall River Public Schools became a Level 4 district because it had three Level 4 schools.

Fall River Progress Report

I have been closely monitoring Fall River's progress since I approved the Plan eighteen months ago. The Monitor I designated out of the Center for District and School Accountability has provided three formal progress reports from December 2009 to December 2010. Reports are based on an analysis of documents and data provided by the district and the Department, and on interviews with school committee leadership and staff from the district, schools, and the Department. The first report provided a summary of the district's progress in each area through December 2009. The second progress report provided a summary of progress from January 2010 to June 2010. This third progress report (Attachment #1) is an analysis through December 2010.

Recovery Plan Progress Reports evaluate work in each of the four sections of the Recovery Plan: Leadership and Governance, Teaching and Learning, Human Resource Management and Financial Management. Progress in each area is summarized in the first section of the report. In the second section of the report, action steps for each of the four areas are assessed for implementation progress according to a five-point scale:

0=Undeveloped: the district did not meet the benchmark in a timely, complete, or sufficient manner.
1=Under-developed: The district made initial steps, but did not take all actions planned to complete this benchmark goal.
2=Developing: The district established structures and a foundation for continuing the work in this area.
3=Practices and Resources in Place: the district not only established structures and a foundation, technically meeting the benchmark, but also established new practices and/or new resources to support implementation.
4=Fully Embedded & Sustainable: the district established new practices and/or new resources to support implementation, and has fully completed this step, by ensuring that the new work is fully embedded in the district and sustainable by the district over time.

In the area of Leadership and Governance, the Monitor found that elected officials and district leadership have made some progress to develop systems that are fundamental for the school committee to function as a governing body and for the superintendent to provide the educational leadership necessary to improve Fall River Public Schools. The district has developed meeting structures allowing citizen input and subcommittee reports, planning structures to ensure that the school committee is well-informed prepared to discuss the items on the agenda in a productive manner, a Policy Manual, a superintendent evaluation instrument, a School Committee Self-Evaluation tool, and plans to develop a handbook that articulates the roles and responsibilities of the superintendent and school committee. The next progress report will determine the extent to which the School Committee is demonstrating a commitment to using its new approach with fidelity. Having the systems and policies in writing to promote effective governance is a step in the right direction, but is not yet an indication that the School Committee will act in accordance with the newly established systems and policies.

In the area of Teaching and Learning, the district has made significant progress in aligning the curriculum and establishing systems for improving and monitoring the delivery of the curriculum. The district still needs to improve and integrate its systems to better support English language learners and students with disabilities; to hold all staff accountable for ensuring that the curriculum documents guide and improve teaching practice; to use interim assessments to track student progress; and, to ensure instruction is adjusted to meet student needs. The next progress report will determine the extent to which the district is monitoring instruction, developing instructional leadership, and supporting teachers in delivering and making adjustments to the curriculum based on needs identified by student achievement data.

In the third area, Human Resource Systems have been developed that hold promise for improvements to leadership capacity, staff evaluation, and employee retention. Regular meetings between central office and building level administrators have resulted in greater district support for principals in leading their schools. New evaluation instruments have been developed and are being implemented this year. An employee assistance plan has been established. Additional steps are still needed to ensure that recruitment and hiring processes allow the district to employ qualified, licensed, and committed staff capable of delivering a quality education to the students of Fall River. The next progress report will assess the capacity of the human resources department and the extent to which newly established practices, such as the use of new evaluation instruments and supervision systems, are implemented in a rigorous, consistent, transparent, and fair manner.

In the area of Financial Management, the district has taken initial steps to put systems and processes in place to improve practices, but has lacked a Chief Financial Officer (CFO) to complete and embed this work. The district recently has selected a new CFO who has been approved by the Department, per the Recovery Plan stipulation. The next report will assess the extent to which the district has built greater capacity and addressed its financial, budgeting and grants management issues.

I caution that the most challenging work in the district has just begun. The district has made progress in laying the foundation for change, but institutionalizing a healthy school committee/superintendent delineation of roles and sustaining changes to educator practice and district and school culture over time is hard work. It is also the real work that creates the conditions and climate conducive to learning for every student in every classroom. I remain concerned that several of the conditions that I established have not been met fully. Condition #2, to correct areas of non-compliance noted in the Comprehensive Program Review, has not yet been met with respect to requirements for English language learners. Condition #3, to address the findings and recommendations in the Plan from the financial systems review conducted by the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials, has not been met, largely because the district was not successful in hiring a permanent CFO to lead this charge. The School Committee and Fall River Educators Association have not met Condition 7, to reach a fiscally responsible agreement on a successor collective bargaining agreement for teachers for the 2010-11 school year. We will be working closely with Fall River to support and monitor its ongoing work.

Recommendation and Next Steps

Fall River continues to be among the districts for which I have the greatest concern. Sustained improvement is essential to moving the district to the point where students are well served and receive the high quality education they deserve. This improvement requires the commitment and collaboration of all stakeholders, including the school committee, superintendent, central administration, building management, and teachers. The dedication to implementing the Recovery Plan has been tentative. Progress has been realized in part through the steady monitoring by the Commonwealth, and it is not clear that all of the stakeholders have a sense of urgency about the distance the district needs to travel to effectively educate the students of Fall River. If the stakeholders' commitment to reforming the system falters, then I may recommend a Level 5 designation. In the interim, the Department will continue providing targeted assistance and monitoring progress.

Conclusion

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.

Enclosure:

Attachment #1: Fall River Progress Report


Last Updated: March 17, 2011
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