American Institute for Research Credits Charter School Management for Turnaround Success in Lawrence Public Schools

July 21, 2016

American Institute for Research Credits Charter School Management for Turnaround Success in Lawrence Public Schools 
Charter practices in a district context cited as “innovation in school turnaround”

BOSTON – July 19, 2016 – 
A new policy brief from the American Institute for Research (AIR) examining the use of external and charter school operators to manage low-performing district schools in the Lawrence Public School (LPS) calls the strategy an “innovation in school turnaround” and proof that partnerships between the two sectors can thrive under the right circumstances. 
The report, “A New Approach to School Turnaround: Charter Operators Managing District Schools,” details the process of developing and implementing this type of turnaround strategy that includes the perspectives of involved charter operators, district administrators, and state officials affiliated with supporting LPS in this experiment, the first of its kind in Massachusetts. The program’s early successes are bolstering statewide interest in this strategy. 

“For decades, charter and district schools have been placed on opposing sides by advocates and policymakers, which has resulted in a tremendous lost opportunity,” said Dr. Susan Bowles Therriault, a principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research. “Such partnerships have the potential to be groundbreaking. Once charter and district school leaders get in the same room, they realize they have similar jobs and a common goal to provide the best education possible for the community’s children.”

Five charters have partnered with the district to improve public education in the city. Community Day Charter manages Lawrence’s Arlington elementary school. Boston’s MATCH charter high school is replicating its successful tutoring program at Lawrence High School. Phoenix Charter Academy Network is operating an alternative high school for dropouts and at risk students. Unlocking Potential, a non-profit charter management organization, is managing two middle schools. In addition to the four identified in the study, Lawrence Family Development Charter is operating a two-year kindergarten program designed to develop foundational skills. 

By bringing over charter models and practices, experience, and capacity to low-performing, district-run schools, charter school operators provide intensive support to the neediest schools in the context of a traditional district school system. The majority of the external operators in Lawrence are charters, but at least one school is run by the Lawrence Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

 The external operator-managed schools in LPS attempted to tackle two vexing challenges of public education: 1) How does a district (or state) provide the level of support needed by its lowest performing schools without compromising the quality of support to all of its schools, given its constrained resources and 2) How can districts (or states) engage charter operators and district school leaders in an active, professional discussion to share ideas and promising practices with the goal of improving the education systems as a whole?

 Some of the study’s key findings include: 
• State leaders and policymakers have a role in improving the specificity of the external operator model through legislation and regulation. 
• State leaders and policymakers need to improve the number and the readiness of external operators and districts to engage in this type of relationship. 
• State leaders need to invest in understanding implementation and impact of this type of strategy. It’s clear that this is a new approach, and thus needs and training will evolve. 
• State leaders and policymakers need to develop a program of incentives. Although the previous suggestions will decrease the disincentives for external operators (and, particularly, charter operators) to engage in the strategy, more is needed.

 “This detailed report from AIR can serve as a roadmap for other Massachusetts districts interested in pursuing a similar partnership and turnaround strategy,” Marc Kenen, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, said. “It’s clear that when charter and district leaders are willing to invest substantial time and political will, it can result in long-term benefits for all public school children.” 

Read the report here: