This is part 2 of an exclusive interview with state appointed receiver Jeff Riley who is now in control of the Lawrence School System.
VP: Talk a little bit about the grants that come in that are not part of the budget process.
JR: There are different opportunities to go out and write grants. Some are easier to get than others. We are trying to write a federal grant, but the odds are really bad to get resources in. I support the grant process, and we will go hard to get this additional money. When we got level four schools for instance, we had to apply to get these school improvement grants. It’s a competitive process. We knocked it out of the park, we did really well to get the dollars in, but they are short term grants. So, part of the problem is always that these things run out after three or four years. So, you can’t really base the focus of your school system on that. You have to use them [as a] supplement.
VP: When does the state plan on leaving Lawrence?
JR: The commissioner has been pretty clear that we are going to be here until the job is done. What that means? I don’t know. What I would say is, we have had some early gains, our graduation rate is up pretty substantially, our dropout rate is down, test scores after the first full year of receivership came back and we reversed after years of decline, in English we are up. Probably not as much as I would like. But we are up, both in absolute performance and in growth. In Math we’re way up, the highest ever in the history of the Lawrence Public Schools. So we had a good first run out of the gate, but there is a lot more work to do.
VP: Why is that, why are the children in the Lawrence Public Schools lowest performing?
JR: First of all I don’t accept the idea that these are poor kids and they are second language [English] learners. You know some of those are challenges that we are going to have to deal with, I get that. But, I was the principal of a school in Boston where, in a few short years, by the time my kids were done in eighth grade … we didn’t go from being the worst performing middle school in Boston to the highest performing, we were actually beating the state average in math. In English we were neck and neck with the state average.
These were kids who had 90% poverty, two-thirds were second language learners, and a third were special education. So, I don’t accept that kind of excuse stuff. It’s a challenge, we totally agree, and we get that. But we have had things like outdated curriculum. In math for example, they are using these CMP (Connected Math Program) books from the 1990’s, which are teaching standards that the kids aren’t expected to know, or they are obsolete, or they’re not being tested on. So we are not even aligned with what the state is saying your kids need to be assessed on.
Listen, I’m not into this ‘constructive based math’ as you know … this kind of “get the concept behind it” … as opposed to the algorithm based math as we all learned it. I’m kind of a moderate on that, I’d like to have both, but it’s gone so far to this ‘constructivist based math’ approach for so long, that kids started losing the algorithm based math and having the right answer. The kids need to know the concept but they also have to be able to do it. So we have changed that. We’ve reformed the curriculum. There were some quick things here that we were able to do that got us two quick wins. But there’s a lot more work to do. I don’t have all the answers but I think we are going in a good direction, and I think we are going to do better in the coming years.
VP: But, what do you think is the problem with the kids of the Lawrence public Schools? Is it environment? Is it culture? Is it the teaching or the administration in the schools? In other words why Lawrence?
JR: No, I think we had to make some pretty drastic changes when we got here, but I think the people we have in place here right now are pretty talented people. I think our best days are yet to come. I would stack the teachers here in Lawrence up against any teachers in Massachusetts. That’s no lie. I came out of Boston where you have some great teachers. We’ve got good people, and we’re going to get better results for our kids.
I think some of it has been about expectations. Some people have held this belief that if you are from another country and you are new, you cannot perform academically. So, we have had to change some of that mindset. Our kids can do some amazing things, and we’re going to do even better for the future.
Then there is a negativity that surrounds this city, right? The City of the Damned, this kid of stuff … people would rather be pulling people down than actually celebrating the good stuff. You know, I beat up your friends at the Tribune when I first got here. I said: ‘all these negative stories all the time, what about talking about the positive stuff? What about the 80 kids who got a perfect score on the MCAS this year? Who’s going to talk about that?’
I get it, that stuff doesn’t sell necessarily, but you’ve got to take some pride in what’s happening. We’ve got a lot of good things happening in the school system. And we’d like to share and have people talk more about it.
VP: So you don’t have a real solid belief as to why Lawrence always tends to be at the bottom. Why Lawrence? You have an outside perspective.
JR: I think that clearly there was some bad stuff that was happening. The question now is where do we go from here? We’ve got some positive good results. I think there are good things happening here in the schools, I really do. I think we can do some great things in the school system here, and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have come.
VP: Do we have teachers who cannot speak English?
JR: No, I don’t think so. You have people who are bilingual who may be stronger in Spanish than in English.
NEXT MONTH: PART 3