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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Level 5 District Planning in Lawrence Public Schools

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
November 23, 2011


On November 29 I likely will recommend that you declare the Lawrence Public Schools a Level 5 ("chronically underperforming") district. This memorandum provides you with an overview of next steps in Lawrence should you declare Lawrence to be "chronically underperforming," thus triggering district receivership.

I am considering receivership for Lawrence because this pathway provides the greatest opportunity for transforming the district from one of the lowest performing in the state to one where students routinely experience strong educational outcomes. While we could approach receivership with a more limited goal of stabilizing the district and securing the most expeditious transition back to community control, I believe our focus must be the long-term quality and effectiveness of the educational program for the students. I expect that excellent schooling for Lawrence students will be realized only through substantial district reform that will require considerable time and effort.

Today I continued my meetings with officials from Lawrence by meeting with members of the School Committee. On Monday evening, November 28, we will hear from Lawrence officials and members of the public regarding receivership. This public input opportunity is a prerequisite to a vote to declare Lawrence to be "chronically underperforming." I will determine whether to recommend that you take this vote after having considered all of the input that we have received.


At the October 2011 meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Board received and discussed the 2011 District Review Report on the Lawrence Public Schools. The report describes a troubled school district with chronic underperformance; a district where leadership and governance are flagging. The Board raised significant concerns about the capacity of the Lawrence Public School system to make the changes necessary to raise student achievement to acceptable performance levels. During the discussion, the possibility of designating the district as Level 5 ("chronically underperforming") was raised as an option for intervening decisively on behalf of the students in Lawrence.

The level of concern we have about the district was underscored last week when I identified three Lawrence schools among the six new Level 4 schools. Two of the three Lawrence schools are high schools where the graduation rate is less than 50 percent. On November 15, 2011, Lawrence Mayor William Lantigua called for state receivership of the school district. I have been in conversations with the mayor and other local officials for some time, and I know that they care passionately about the district and how well students are served. While calls by Lawrence officials for state receivership are not universal, there are a number who have endorsed the Mayor's request.

With three-fourths of the schools in Lawrence experiencing declines in student achievement from 2010-2011, five of the 28 Lawrence schools are now in Level 4. District-wide performance in ELA and math is among the bottom one (1) percent of all our school districts; Lawrence has the third lowest math Composite Performance Index (CPI) and fourth lowest ELA CPI in the Commonwealth. Less than one-half of Lawrence's students graduate from high school within 4 years-this is the lowest graduation rate of any (non-charter) district in the state. Past Department partnership efforts have resulted in incremental increases in student achievement, but have fallen short of the bold actions necessary to bring about the dramatic changes that are needed for the benefit of the students.

There is no question that the challenges that the Lawrence school district faces are substantial. Many of the approximately 13,000 students in the Lawrence Public Schools face substantial barriers to learning and deserve a strong educational system. Almost nine out of ten students (87 percent) in Lawrence live in poverty, and 24 percent of the students are still learning English. Lawrence students are capable of reaching high standards, and the current system is not actualizing their capabilities. I know that we can and must attain better educational outcomes for the youth of the city.

Since the Act Relative to the Achievement Gap was signed into law in January 2010, the Department has been engaged in early planning to prepare for the possibility that a Level 5 district declaration might one day be necessary. In the event of a Level 5 designation in Lawrence, the commissioner will appoint a receiver. The following is a description of proposed next steps and planning the Department will implement should the Board make a Level 5 district designation in Lawrence.

Overview of Proposed Level 5 District Process in Lawrence

At the June 2011 meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, we provided materials outlining a proposed process for intervening in a Level 5 district consistent with An Act Relative to the Achievement Gap (MGL Chapter 69, s. 1K) and the Regulations on School and District Accountability (603 CMR 2.00). The proposed process was also discussed in detail at the March 2011 meeting of the Accountability and Assistance Advisory Council.

Once the Lawrence Public Schools district review was completed, the Department's concern about the lack of progress and the significant dysfunction of the district's systems of support prompted us to begin an extensive analysis of other efforts nationally where state education agencies placed urban districts under receivership. Based on these considerations, we have adapted the Level 5 district process presented to you in June in order to take into account the urgency with which we must proceed on behalf of the students in Lawrence.

If the Board designates Lawrence as a Level 5 district, the Department is committed to providing rapid, substantial and positive change for every student in Lawrence Public Schools. We have identified potential receivers and will select one with the strongest combination of experience and skills for the role. I will work with the receiver to act decisively, establish quick successes, and reinvigorate the district and its schools through a relentless focus on excellence in teaching.

The following is our anticipated overview of next steps in the event of State Board designation of "chronic underperformance" for Lawrence, recognizing that changes in circumstances may necessitate changes to this plan:

  • December 2011: Receiver Appointed and Transition of Authority
    • Commissioner appoints receiver
    • DESE begins legal process of transfer of authorities

  • January 2012: Receiver Assumes Authority
    • Receiver assumes leadership of Lawrence Public Schools

  • January 1 - March 31, 2012: Planning and Engagement
    Receiver gathers and analyzes data to determine the framework for a rigorous, ambitious, and attainable Level 5 District Plan
    • Transition to New Governance Structure -Commissioner defines the role and responsibility of the local school committee
    • Local Stakeholder Group convenes to shape the Plan's priorities for accelerating the improvement of district systems of support (per MGL Chapter 69, s. 1K(b))
    • Analysis of Assets and Challenges is performed to prioritize strategies and actions (e.g., assessment of ongoing role of school committee, current superintendent, instructional supports, staffing needs, etc.)
    • Framework for Level 5 District Plan is drafted to be approved by the commissioner; plan includes district priorities (with clear implications for human resource and budget decisions) and strategies to accelerate achievement with measurable benchmarks of progress that connect directly to accelerated improvement of outcomes for students in all schools

  • April 1, 2012 - August 30, 2012: Transition of District Systems
    Receiver aligns governance structure, budget development, plans for staffing, and instructional supports to implement strategies that create the conditions for accelerated student achievement.
    • Aligning Human and Fiscal Resources to emerging priorities in Level 5 District Plan. FY13 school budget finalized and coordinated with human resource development strategies
    • Educator Evaluation System Implemented
    • Ongoing Parent and Community Participation
    • Level 5 District Plan is finalized and approved by the commissioner; plan clearly defines strategies, benchmarks, and the results for which the receiver will be held accountable

  • Beginning New School Year, 2012-13: Implementation of Level 5 District Plan
    Receiver implements Level 5 District Plan and provides monthly highlight reports of progress on benchmarks.
    • Quarterly Report prepared by the receiver and the commissioner and presented to the Board, school committee, and public to identify progress in relation to benchmarks
    • Annual Report prepared by the commissioner to the Board and school committee reporting on overall progress in the district, effectiveness of the receiver, and implementation of the Level 5 District Plan.

Activities Underway

I have been meeting with potential receivers for Lawrence and consulting with individuals who have experience with receivership. I have spoken with several potential candidates for receiver and will determine the best match for the assignment should the Board designate Lawrence as chronically underperforming. In addition, I have been speaking and meeting with several individuals who have hands-on experience as receivers, including Harry Spence (Chelsea receiver), Chris Gabrieli (member of the Springfield control board), and Jim Peyser (New Schools Venture Fund) to assist with our planning.

Department staff, led by Lynda Foisy and supported by Eva Mitchell, Lise Zeig, and Jesse Dixon, have been planning for Level 5 district intervention for the past year. With the escalating discussion about Lawrence, they have accelerated the planning and have identified potential partners to assist the receiver with the development of the Level 5 plan.

Ultimately, our goal is to secure a high-performing school district that effectively prepares students for success at the next level (i.e., preparing elementary students for success in the middle grades; middle grade students for success in high school; and high school students for success in college and careers). Lawrence students are as capable as students anywhere in the Commonwealth, but the district is falling well short of its responsibility to provide them with an effective education. The authorities and flexibilities of a Level 5 designation would empower a receiver to initiate an ambitious and accelerated reform agenda so that students receive the quality of education that they need to meet the high standards that we hold for all students in the Commonwealth.


Students in Lawrence have the capability to reach high levels of academic achievement. Unfortunately, the instances in Lawrence where high levels of academic attainment are realized are the exception. For more than the past decade, low levels of academic performance have become the norm - in fact, fewer than one-half of students graduate from high school on time. I have little confidence that interventions that fall short of systemic reform will transform the school district into one where excellence is the rule rather than the exception.

I will be attentive to the input we receive on Monday night, in addition to the district review and other input I have received, in determining whether I ask you to declare Lawrence as "chronically underperforming," thus triggering receivership. My recommendation will be based on my judgment about what it will take transform the Lawrence school district to one where all students - and not just a few - are receiving an excellent education.


Level 5 (Chronically Underperforming) Statute and Regulations

Last Updated: November 28, 2011
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