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Level 4 District Update: Gill-Montague, Holyoke, New Bedford, Randolph, and Southbridge, Fall River, Salem

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
January 18, 2013


This is a progress update for the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (Board) on the seven Level 4 districts currently using our Department's Accelerated Improvement Planning process to address systemic challenges. These districts are receiving our support in the design and implementation of a customized plan to rapidly improve conditions for teaching and learning in their districts. In addition, we regularly monitor the progress of each district as improvement strategies are implemented. This memorandum provides a high level view of each district's improvement focus and trajectory.


Twelve districts are currently identified as Level 4 districts. The seven that are discussed in this memo were placed in this status because district reviews identified serious deficiencies in one or more of the district's systems. The remaining five districts are in Level 4 status because they have Level 4 schools, not because a comprehensive review has identified systemic weaknesses. Those five districts are not subject to the Department's planning and monitoring activity and are not reported on here.

Of the seven districts discussed in this memo, four were identified as underperforming by the Board before 2008, when reviews of district capacity were conducted by the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability: Holyoke, Gill-Montague, Southbridge and Randolph. The remaining three districts were designated as Level 4 as a result of two factors-each district had at least one Level 4 school, and the Department's comprehensive review process identified serious weaknesses-Fall River, New Bedford and Salem.

Attachment A provides a list of all 12 Level 4 districts and the reasons for their placement in Level 4, and identifies those districts currently working under a Department-approved Accelerated Improvement Plan.

Ongoing Assistance to Level 4 Districts

The Department has provided support for Level 4 districts to help them plan, implement, and monitor the changes that are necessary to turn around district practice and accelerate improvement. In particular, where a district review has highlighted specific findings in one or more of the six standards that frame the review, the Department's planning support is focused on ensuring that the resulting Accelerated Improvement Plan (AIP) is responsive to those findings and recommendations. The theory guiding the Department's approach to Level 4 districts is: If a Level 4 district can define a narrow set of strategic objectives to accelerate student learning, execute well-defined initiatives with a relentless focus on implementation, and systematically monitor the impact of those initiatives to inform mid-course corrections, outcomes for students will be dramatically transformed.

The Department provides standards, a guidance document, and a template to help districts develop a Level 4 Accelerated Improvement Plan. These documents can be viewed at State System of Accountability's Current District Reports webpage. The Department's Center for Targeted Assistance provides support to district leaders in developing the AIP. Our Center for District and School Accountability assesses the quality of each AIP and provides feedback to each district as to how its AIP should be improved to meet the established standards.

Key elements of the AIP are:

  • An introduction that identifies the core issues facing the district that must be addressed in order to improve student outcomes, along with a theory of action explaining how the AIP objectives will lead to the district's vision of success;
  • Three to five Strategic Objectives that provide overarching areas of focus for the AIP;
  • Up to five Strategic Initiatives for each Strategic Objective, describing the significant changes that will occur in administrators' and teachers' practice as part of AIP implementation; and
  • Performance benchmarks: specific outcomes that will indicate that the AIP is having the intended impact.

In order to strengthen Level 4 district capacity for this work, the Department provides funding to support a .5 FTE District Plan Manager who supports district leaders in the AIP's development, implementation, and reporting. Each Plan Manager is jointly selected by the Department and the superintendent and is required to participate in ongoing training to build his/her project management capacity. Plan Managers are convened as a group through regular, facilitated network meetings.

The Department also provides funding for an AIP Accountability Plan Monitor for each Level 4 district. Monitors seek to understand the extent to which the district is successfully implementing, reflecting on, and updating its AIP through a continuous cycle of improvement. A summary of the roles of all stakeholders in the Accelerated Improvement Plan process can be also be found at State System of Accountability's Current District Reports webpage.

Gill-Montague, Holyoke, New Bedford, Randolph, and Southbridge developed and implemented their AIPs in the 2011-2012 school year and have updated their plans for the 2012-2013 school year. Fall River and Salem developed AIPs this year and are beginning to implement them in the 2012-2013 school year.

District Progress in 2011-2012


Gill-Montague identified several key challenges and developed its AIP based on the following Strategic Objectives:

  • Objective 1: To improve the performance of all students through high quality instruction measured through a system of data collection and analysis.
  • Objective 2: To utilize student outcome data to modify curriculum, improve teaching and learning for all students, and identify professional development needs.
  • Objective 3: To provide professional development resulting in improved teaching practice and student outcomes as measured by classroom observations, teacher evaluations of professional development, and improved student outcomes.
  • Objective 4: To create a teacher evaluation tool that promotes collaboration, student-centered learning, and the use of research based instructional practices that result in improved student outcomes.

Gill-Montague made steady progress toward each of these objectives. The district updated its curricula, developed strategies for periodic observation and feedback regarding instruction, and improved its system for planning and providing professional development for teachers. It also implemented a more thoughtful approach to using data to inform instruction, and improved its communication with teachers and families concerning district initiatives. Despite significant turnover in the district (there is currently an interim superintendent and the district recently hired a consulting firm to manage financial and operations functions), I have more confidence at this time that Gill-Montague has the ability and commitment necessary to continue its improvement. The interim superintendent has developed an AIP that maintains the objectives from last year's AIP and intentionally builds on the work done last year. The Department's regional District and School Assistance Center (DSAC) continues to provide ongoing support to Gill-Montague.

Given Gill-Montague's careful implementation of its AIP last year, its level of performance, and the commitment to progress that the district and school committee have demonstrated to date, I will consider removing Gill-Montague from Level 4 once the district meets these conditions:

(1) a permanent superintendent is appointed to lead the district, and
(2) the superintendent provides me with a clear commitment to implement the Accelerated Improvement Plan, including a plan for how the district intends to operationalize all of the strategies set out in the AIP.


Holyoke also made significant progress last year. The district's Strategic Objectives were as follows:

  • Objective 1: Improve instructional quality by building leadership capacity throughout the district to continuously improve teaching and learning.
  • Objective 2: Foster a cycle of continuous improvement and accountability by using data to effectively examine and improve practice.
  • Objective 3: 85% of all Holyoke children will be proficient readers by the end of third grade by 2014.
  • Objective 4: Focus on literacy in grades 4-8.

I am pleased to report that Holyoke used its AIP to make significant changes to its systems and practices. The district strengthened its principals' ability to help teachers improve their instruction. It required principals to develop School Improvement Plans that were aligned with the goals and activities in the AIP. It overhauled its student data system, developed systems for analyzing and responding to student data, and implemented specific strategies to increase students' literacy. Holyoke's 2012-2013 AIP is designed to build on the progress made last year, and focuses on increasing instructional rigor in every classroom. The district works with a Department liaison who provides technical assistance in support of district goals.

New Bedford

The New Bedford district experienced a great deal of change last year, including the retirement of its superintendent during the school year and a second New Bedford school being designated as Level 4. I did not approve the initial AIP that the district submitted, due to concerns that it did not adequately identify the kind of systemic changes necessary to promote accelerated student outcomes. In January 2012, I approved New Bedford's proposed Strategic Objectives, which served as a set of guidelines the district used to guide important changes in its practice. In June 2012, I approved New Bedford's revised AIP in its entirety. The AIP's objectives were:

  • Objective 1: Prepare all NBPS students for college and career success by implementing rigorous standards.
  • Objective 2: Develop a culture of using data to improve instructional practice and decision-making.
  • Objective 3: Expand school and staff capacity to deliver effective engaging instruction to all students.
  • Objective 4: Raise expectations for student achievement and increase student ownership of their learning.

New Bedford made progress in updating its curricula and in establishing some systems related to analyzing student data. The district made significant progress in creating and refining an approach to Learning Walks, as a way to observe trends in instruction and provide feedback to teachers. New Bedford has received accolades for its unique school and community campaign to improve student attendance, which became a visible element throughout the district. Other district initiatives, including the effort to improve passing rates at the high school level, were less successful. While I am encouraged by the improvement I saw in New Bedford's AIP over the course of the year and by the district's efforts to put new strategies in place, I remain concerned about dropout and 9th grade retention rates in New Bedford, and I plan to watch the district's selection of a new superintendent closely.


Randolph's AIP was based on the following objectives:

  • Objective 1: Ensuring success for all students through high quality learning and teaching.
  • Objective 2: Ensuring success for all students through high quality professional development.
  • Objective 3: Ensuring success for all students through high quality accountability systems.

Randolph made progress in implementing all of these objectives. The district developed a set of instructional practices, "The Randolph Way," which defined what was expected in all classrooms. Working with the District and School Assistance Center, the district revised curricula, provided professional development to administrators and teachers to support the AIP strategies, and put new accountability systems in place for administrators and teachers. Randolph also instituted an improved system of formal and informal classroom observations. Although the district did not make significant gains overall, its elementary grades showed an encouraging degree of growth. I am hopeful that improvement will continue in Randolph and will be extended to the secondary level.


Southbridge struggled last year to produce an AIP that met my approval, despite extensive feedback and support from the Department. In April 2012, I formally accepted the following objectives as working guidelines:

  • Objective 1: Implement high quality curriculum and instruction programs to support the achievement of all students.
  • Objective 2: Establish a data driven culture to support and monitor the achievement of all students.
  • Objective 3: Provide high quality professional development programs to support the achievement of all learners/students.

Because it lacked a viable AIP for most of the year, Southbridge was only able to begin implementation of some elements in its AIP. Southbridge developed a document identifying the instructional practices that are expected to be used in all classrooms, and trained all administrators and teachers to use the document. Southbridge also trained staff in the Response to Intervention approach, with the goal of addressing the needs of all students. This year, the district is working with the District and School Assistance Center to implement an updated AIP, which I approved this month. The district's progress and challenges related to the AIP are described in its Summative Report.

Fall River

Fall River's AIP represents a continuation of its previous Recovery Plan, under which it made significant improvement to district systems. The AIP that I approved for Fall River includes goals for the district overall and for the Fall River School Committee. Because of Fall River's experience developing and monitoring its Recovery Plan, I did not assign a Plan Manager to that district. The district has a Department liaison to provide technical assistance and I have provided a Department consultant to support leadership and governance. I have assigned a Plan Monitor to Fall River to ensure that the district's progress is regularly reviewed and reported.


Salem worked diligently to develop a coherent, ambitious set of strategies that would be likely to lead to accelerated improvement during the first three months of the 2012-2013 school year. The district submitted a plan in December 2012 that met our standards and has been approved. Implementation is now underway with DSAC support.


Some districts produced an AIP early in the year that met the Department's requirements, allowing them to focus on implementation for most of the year. Other districts found it more challenging to identify key priorities and to develop a thorough, ambitious AIP that was likely to lead to significant change. The Department has taken this opportunity to develop a planning process and monitoring tools that are grounded in a cycle of continuous improvement. As district leaders engage with our model, new capacities are developing.

Another challenge is leadership turnover, especially turnover at the superintendent level. New Bedford, Gill-Montague and Southbridge currently have interim leaders in place. Randolph's and Holyoke's superintendents will leave the district at the end of this school year. In all cases, superintendent searches are or will soon be underway. To support these districts in selecting a superintendent with the skills needed to continue the district on the accelerated improvement pathway, I have appointed representatives to serve on the superintendent search committees for New Bedford and Holyoke, and will appoint representatives to serve on the superintendent search committees for Southbridge and Randolph. My staff reports that although there has been leadership turnover or changes in leadership are anticipated in these districts, the AIP continues to serve as a stabilizing focus to keep school committees and staff focused on the district's key improvement goals.

Although none of these districts has yet achieved sufficient improvement in student outcomes, they are working to create and improve systems and to establish a foundation that I hope will lead to stronger results going forward. All AIPs for 2012-2013 school year represent this next level of work and demonstrate increased capacity in each district to plan, reflect on, and adjust the strategies needed to bring about accelerated improvement.

Next Steps

The regulations that the Board adopted in April 2010 clarified the process for a district in Level 4 to be monitored, periodically reviewed, and considered for removal from Level 4 - either to Level 3 if systems and practices were substantially improved, or to Level 5 if the district required substantially more intense intervention. After the 2012-2013 school year, I will evaluate the progress that these districts have made, and will make recommendations concerning a Level designation for each.

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Attachment 1: Level 4 and 5 Districts

Last Updated: January 3, 2013
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