Lawrence witnesses Massachusetts school success story

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Just three years ago, the E.J. Harrington Elementary School in Lynn, Mass., was declared "underperforming" by state education officials, who gave teachers and administrators an ultimatum: Turn the school around or risk closure. Today, Harrington is the site of celebration. Since 2009, student achievement at the school has soared, and Harrington was recently cited by the state as one of the most improved schools in Massachusetts.

Francine Lawrence, AFT executive vice president, visited the school on Oct. 4 to witness its progress for herself and talk to teachers and administrators about the keys to their success. She was particularly impressed by the students' achievement, given the demographic challenges the school faces. Students here speak more than 25 different languages, as Lynn, historically a resettlement community for refugees, continues to welcome newcomers from all over the world. And students are overwhelmingly poor, with nearly 90 percent receiving free or reduced-price lunch. "That makes the success of the teachers and administrators at Harrington even more remarkable," says Lawrence.

Teachers and administrators alike credit a spirit of collaboration for the turnaround. John Laubner, who taught English at Harrington for three decades and now serves as a master mentor to new teachers, praises administrators for transforming the culture of the school. "The school climate is so positive and so focused on success, and that's what makes the teaching here so effective," says Laubner. And while a turnaround process can be tense by definition, Laubner says administrators have gone to remarkable lengths to make the school an "'anxiety-free zone."' "The leadership at every level is basically sending the same message: We have confidence in our teachers, and we're going to give you the tools and support you need to help your kids thrive."

Teachers here—both new and veteran—say that collaborative planning time has been a key part of their increased effectiveness. Teachers, support staff and specialists meet for 40 minutes each week for professional development that is specifically targeted to the challenges they face. Every other week, teachers in grade-level teams meet for an hour and 20 minutes to review data and address student needs.

Principal Debra Ruggiero says that freeing up teachers and staff has been well worth the inevitable logistical headaches. "As one teacher, it's so easy to feel isolated and overwhelmed," says Ruggiero, who was a special education and preschool teacher for 21 years at Harrington before becoming principal. "Giving people the time to work together has been essential to breaking down that isolation."

First-year teacher Greg Tobey says that he was initially apprehensive about signing on to teach fifth grade at Harrington. "Principal Ruggiero warned me that it wasn't going to easy," recalls Tobey. But the emphasis on collaboration has been a revelation, not to mention a lifesaver. "We can plan, problem-solve and troubleshoot about virtually anything we're encountering in our classrooms," says Tobey.

In an age of consuming focus on standardized testing, Ruggiero also encourages teachers and staff here to think less about the state test's bottom line and more about the social and emotional needs of their students. "We've learned over time that no matter how great you are, your students can't access what you're teaching if they are hurting or hungry," says Ruggiero. "Our main measure here is growth: Where do our students start, and how much do they progress while we have them?"

As a result of Harrington's progress in boosting student achievement, the school is likely to exit so-called Level Four status next year. And while school staff are pleased to have successfully met the state's challenge, they are understandably anxious about losing resources that they say have been essential. A health clinic recently opened on-site, and social workers are available to assist students—part of a menu of wraparound services intended to help students thrive. Those extras will be difficult to sustain should state funding shrink.

"They've accomplished so much at this school, and now the challenge is going to be how do they continue to progress," says Lawrence. "The tools and the support that teachers have now have been essential, but resources matter too."

As Lawrence's visit to Harrington wrapped up, longtime prekindergarten teacher Joanne Lawrence appeared at her classroom door to say goodbye. With her were two young students, on just their second day in an unfamiliar school, surrounded by people speaking an unfamiliar language. "They had to be scared to death," says Lawrence. "But the teacher just wrapped her arms around them. She'd already formed a relationship with them. It was wonderful to see."

While she was in Massachusetts, Lawrence also joined a lively rally for U.S. Rep. John Tierney and other local political candidates. Tierney has been a steadfast supporter of Lynn schools, students and families. [Jennifer Berkshire]

October 11, 2012