Riley’s turnaround effort bigger than schools
Lawrence groups and city in general pitch in to revamp education system
A FEW YEARS AGO, Lawrence’s schools were considered some of the worst in the state. Only half of their students were finishing high school. Test scores were abysmal. Beyond the school walls, there was distress in the community: more than a quarter of the residents were living in poverty. The state appointed a receiver, Jeff Riley, to run the schools in 2012.
There has been much press about Riley’s package of reforms, which include giving school leaders more power and resources relative to the central office, extending the school day, running intensive academic programs over vacations, creating a career ladder for teachers, replacing low-performing teachers, and inviting charter school organizations to manage some schools.
What has received less coverage is Riley’s partnership with community organizations. This change is worth watching.
It is far from obvious that when you take charge of a troubled school system, you should spend your limited time building partnerships with non-profits that have their own missions, issues, and personalities. It could be a distraction from the time you need to spend with personnel inside the system.
Yet, one of the first things Riley did in Lawrence was pull together a “speed dating” event for school principals and community non-profit leaders, where participants engaged in multiple five-minute, one-to-one meetings. Riley called it an assets assessment. After the event, he began hosting regular meetings with the non-profit leaders.
Riley’s vision was to extend the school day in Lawrence, and to recruit community partners to provide enrichment activities for many of the new hours, as opposed to hiring teachers and staff to run additional activities and lessons in house. Riley’s effort mobilized many organizations, and led to a pioneering effort by school and civic leaders.