Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Telegram Editorial On State Takeover Of Southbridge Schools

EDITORIAL: A reset in Southbridge – School takeover will help Southbridge turn around its failing schools

It’s not a death sentence, except for the wrong way to run a school system. Think of it as a reset, not just for the Southbridge Public Schools but for the community as a whole.

The Southbridge Public Schools did more than fail its students; it also inadequately prepared students who represent a new generation of Southbridge’s future. This didn’t happen in isolation, however. Southbridge, a town of nearly 17,000 and which has a city form of government, failed its schools. 

The state’s takeover of the public school system yesterday is rare – only Lawrence and Holyoke have previously been placed in similar receivership under the Massachusetts Achievement Gap Act of 2010 – but it’s an opportunity to bring stability to a spinning turnstile of school committee members, superintendents, principals, and business managers.

State Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester called Southbridge’s turnover of leadership and governance, with seven superintendents and seven high school principals since 2011 “just outrageous.” In only the first nine months of 2015, the district saw surprise resignations by two different superintendents, the most recent a superintendent who officially served just one month after an interim period. But it’s more than that – five different business directors in seven years. Plus two major shifts on the School Committee in a divided community. Failure on this level doesn't happen in isolation, awaiting just the right superintendent or principal to fix the problem.

Town elections count in selecting the right candidates. Properly vetting and hiring the right superintendents and principals count. An administration setting the right priorities counts. A community providing appropriate support counts. Given the constant turmoil, it’s no surprise that Commissioner Chester said that in his visits to the district that he found it “astonishing how little guidance teachers are receiving.” Mr. Chester told the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that the town's chronically low student performance and its students falling further behind their counterparts across the state each year was a continual concern.

It’s also striking that Southbridge, a relatively small community with only about 2,200 students, has entered the same company as an urban district, Lawrence, with nearly 13,700 students; and Holyoke, with just over 5,300 students or more than double the student population of Southbridge.

Yesterday’s vote by the state board to approve the commissioner’s recommendation for receivership, as covered by T&G reporter Brian Lee, was nearly unanimous: nine in favor and one abstention. Judging by what has happened in Lawrence and Holyoke, both still under receivership, Southbridge will see an operation no longer bound by collective bargaining agreements, plus the potential for extended classroom hours, a reach-out to community organizations for help, more professional development sessions for teachers, new teacher evaluation systems, an examination of how much is spent on all accounts, including how much is spent on central office operations versus in classrooms. The current interim school superintendent, principals, teachers, and the School Committee will all be accountable to Commissioner Chester and whomever he appoints as receiver. A turnaround plan will develop once a receiver and a local group of stakeholders is convened.

He also indicated yesterday that instead of an individual receiver, as in Lawrence and Holyoke, the state might consider having a nonprofit organization run the district. That may signal a form similar to a charter school board, which wouldn’t be surprising given the Baker-Polito Administration’s affinity for charter school expansion.

While the state now has the power to do what’s necessary in running the schools, it can’t do this alone. Just as Southbridge’s problems didn’t occur in isolation, neither will its solutions. It’s up to the entire community, both in the schools and outside the schools, to collaborate in making this work. 

It’s a new beginning, benefiting a new generation of students who represent the future of Southbridge.

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