Massachusetts school blazes a path toward partnership

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The Oliver Partnership School opened this month in Lawrence, Mass., and what happens inside its walls bears watching at every policy level. Located next to the boyhood home of poet Robert Frost, the new school is trying a road less traveled—a true partnership of educators, labor, business and the community when it comes to improving schools and reclaiming the promise of excellent education for all students.

Ribbon cutting at Oliver School

Aug. 21 was the first day of school. Local state and national AFT leaders joined students, staff, school administrators and a long list of local, state and federal officials for the ribbon cutting at Oliver, a neighborhood school serving grades 1-5 in the heart of Lawrence. Dignitaries ranged from Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) to state Secretary of Labor Joanne Goldstein, but VIP treatment at the event was reserved for dozens of students sporting "I am the promise" T-shirts—kids who also received school shirts at the start of the year, paid for by teachers from the money they receive for classroom supplies.

Speaking at the event, AFT President Randi Weingarten directed most of her comments to the students, the most important partners in the room, and she promised that the adults around them were on the same page when it came to their dreams and the school they would enter each and every morning.

"We will all work to make sure that every single day you feel that your life is ahead of you," Weingarten told the kids. "We want to make these promises real—to walk the walk, not just talk the talk."

It's a long-haul commitment, Lawrence Teachers' Union President Frank McLaughlin said of the local union's participation in the new school. A building like this, he said, is designed "allow students to succeed both in and out of school … and to reclaim the promise not just in this school but across our city, our commonwealth and our nation."

"What a metaphor for our city this is!" said Jeff Riley, the system's chief administrator, as he surveyed the century-old building and its auditorium, filled with decorative portraits and cornices that staff had spent the summer restoring to the proud look they had years ago. Riley praised the work that went on behind the walls, both physical and instructional, in preparation for the first day. The experience showed "it's got to be teachers, parents, our central office, political leaders working for our kids" in order for this type of work to pay off.

At times, it was work that was not without headwinds and challenges.

students at Oliver School

Lawrence public schools have been burdened by uncertainty and political turmoil in the wake of a state takeover in 2011. The idea for Oliver Partnership School began, in fact, in a dangerous school climate. Its predecessor, the Oliver School, received low marks from the state and was slated for corrective action. In Lawrence, that typically meant conversion to a charter school run by for-profits, but teachers at the school had a different idea. They approached the Lawrence Teachers' Union to see if their local could help them design a new school that would give teachers a real voice in daily decisions. It would be a school supported by a wide array of partners, reinvigorated with a sense of neighborhood and community—something that staff felt had been lost in recent years, when the Oliver School was relocated to a local high school.

The request was received enthusiastically by the local, which saw the teachers' ideas as a potential game-changer. Recently, Lawrence has seen a proliferation of charters run by education management organizations (EMOs), and the trend has led to high turnover and the threat that a growing number of schools could become buildings run by national chains, divorced from their neighborhoods, transforming teaching into a revolving-door profession with educators having little authority to make classroom decisions, McLaughlin says. The Oliver Partnership Plan looked like a step back from that trend—offering teachers more authority, and consciously opening its doors to parents and community groups.

The union and district both agreed that it made sense to take a good-faith look at the teachers' plan.

This January, Lawrence sent a labor-management team of 20 to the AFT Center for School Improvement (CSI) Institute. It took a few days for the group to gel, remembers Maureen Santiago, an Oliver Partnership School founding teacher who was part of the process, but the barriers came down and the delegation to CSI began to formulate plans, many of them tracing back to the first meeting between LTU and the group of teachers from the struggling school. At Oliver Partnership School:

  • Key education decisions on matters like curriculum, instruction and assessments will be made by a seven-member partnership team, including four non-administrator educators and a paraprofessional, all elected by their peers for two-year terms.
  • Planning time at Oliver has increased from 45 to 85 minutes a day, one of the first decisions made by a teacher committee responsible for the school schedule. Math and English language arts coaches also have been added.
  • The school has boosted ELL staff and built in more opportunities for them to work with general education teachers; ELL students constitute 28 percent of the student population at Oliver.
  • ]Instructional paraprofessionals have been added to the staff, assisting general classroom teachers with struggling students, English language learners and special education students in inclusion classrooms.
  • The school has added a behavioral specialist position to help with early intervention and has created a director of community outreach position to strengthen partnerships with groups like the YMCA, the Boys Club and the Lawrence History Center. "Lawrence: Past, Present and Future" is the new school's theme, and it will be woven into the curriculum and after-school enrichment programs at Oliver.
Randi Weingarten with student

"It's going to take a little time, but I'm feeling very optimistic" about the school's prospects, says Santiago. The educator says there is a lot of teachers' voice in the decisions already made at the school: the emphasis on early intervention for struggling or disruptive students, professional development that isn't a stand-alone support, and the conscious effort to open the doors to the neighborhood and "restore the sense of community that seemed to be ebbing" in the years when the school was housed in another building.

Her optimism was shared by those who spoke on the school's opening day. Rep. Tierney, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives Education and the Workforce Committee, said that a big part of the federal role in education is to find and support true collaboration at the state and local levels. "I am going to continue to follow this, and I think it will be a model" for the rest of the country, he said of the new school.

Talk about "model" makes many nervous at a school with wet paint on the walls, to be sure, but there was little doubt that teachers also sense a palpable opportunity at hand: Through collaboration, shared responsibility and a renewed sense of community, Oliver Partnership School will be a fine public school. Some victories have already been won, says Santiago. Among the stakeholders, "there is a sense that we are all in this together—that no one can do it all alone."

And that has made all the difference. [Mike Rose/photos by John Harrington]