By Michael Gagne
Herald News Staff Reporter
Improving the city’s schools is a process that’s far from complete. But the public school system is in a good position to continue the work, without a state-appointed monitor overlooking the process, say education officials.
Contrast that sentiment with 2009, just five years ago, when the prospect of a state takeover of the city’s public school system loomed large.
In a letter and a 91-page report from March of that year, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester wrote to then-Mayor Robert Correia that he had been ready to declare the Fall River school district underperforming.
Data showed a large number of Fall River students under-performing and failing on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests. But it wasn’t just students who were failing; there were shortcomings in the system itself, too.
“I was concerned up and down the line,” said Chester, who spoke with The Herald News recently.
After reviewing the district in January 2009, state education officials found ineffectiveness in several areas, including governance by the School Committee, and that the district had been lacking in its central administrative capacity, lacking a human resources director and a chief financial officer. That ineffectiveness trickled down into the schools themselves, state officials said.
But because Correia had requested DESE review the district, Chester stopped short of recommending a takeover.
Instead, he recommended the district adopt a recovery plan and a state-appointed monitor to oversee progress made on that plan, quarterly.
Now Chester and other education officials say the district, which in 2012 moved from a recovery plan to an Accelerated Improvement Plan, no longer needs to be monitored and can continue the work of improving student performance on its own. The announcement came to the School Committee when it met last Tuesday.
From state watch list to monitoring
Before 2009, the district already had a long history of poor student performance on MCAS tests. It was on watch, from 2004 to 2007, by the state’s former Office of Educational Quality and Accountability.
By the time DESE issued its report, there were more concerns than just student performance.
“Our key concerns were around governance, and leadership in the district,” Chester said. “We were watching a School Committee that in our estimation was not focused on the right things.” He defined “the right things” as taking the actions needed to help the district improve student achievement.
Chester said he was further concerned about the committee’s conduct during that time, and what he said was its second-guessing of Superintendent Meg Mayo-Brown, who had been months into her appointment as acting superintendent. A few months later she received a full-time appointment, a title she has held since.
Chester said he was “concerned about whether the School Committee was going to give [Mayo-Brown] a chance to be successful.
“It wasn’t clear that the city was watching out for the well-being of the school district,” he said. “Our concerns were substantial and lasted several years.”
Committee vice chairman Mark Costa called 2009 “a dark time in Fall River school history.”
Former committeewoman Marilyn Roderick, who sat on the committee for a decade until 2011, said there was friction among committee members at the time. She saw the involvement of DESE in a positive light.
“They weren’t coming to Fall River to bury Fall River,” she said. “They were coming to lift Fall River.”
During the recovery process, committeeman Joseph Martins on occasion made his grievances with state education officials clear.
Martins said officials made accusations he considered to be “unfounded. Do I have to say yes to everything the superintendent wants? Is that efficiency?”
By 2013, School Committee governance was the last piece of the improvement plan that had to be finalized.
“It’s unfortunate it took as long as it did,” Costa said.
Former committeeman and former Fall River Schools Superintendent Rick Pavao said it “took some arm-twisting to make members realize we’re a policy-making board.
“And we came together because we got on the same page,” Pavao said.
Mayo-Brown said despite some initial pushback about some of the early requirements of the Recovery Plan, in particular the hiring of an executive director of HR and a chief financial officer, the committee overall “has been supportive of the recovery work.”
“Each time we’ve presented a need for a resource in order to meet the goals of the recovery plan, the School Committee has ultimately supported those resources,” Mayo-Brown said.
“It may have taken some debate, deliberations, as it should. It may have taken me coming back to them one or two times, but in the end, they have been extremely supportive of the resources that I needed in order to implement the recovery plan.”
A different school district today
Chester said he now sees a different district in Fall River, one that is more focused on student achievement.
“I think it’s been evolutionary,” Chester said of the committee’s shift in focus. “There’s not any particular moment in time. For the most part I’ve seen it withdraw micromanaging, focusing more on policy increasingly over the last couple of years.”
But presently, Chester said, “it’s a much more professional committee, more focused on what’s important. And I’ve watched the school district improve as a result. It’s a real success story.”
He added that Mayo-Brown has grown into her role as superintendent, “to becoming one of our more mature and savvy urban superintendents.”
Mayo-Brown said even without direct DESE oversight, “there’s still a lot more that needs to be done. We’re engaged in that work.
“The department simply feels that we have the structures and systems in place to support the improvement of our schools,” Mayo-Brown said. The results of the work by educators in the district had been a long time coming.
“For each of the past five years, when our results come in, it’s like, oh almost there. They haven’t quite come together yet. But we stayed the course, and we knew that eventually, it would come together,” Mayo-Brown said.
While Fall River is still in the “middle of the pack” of urban school districts in terms of students’ academic performance, Mayo-Brown said student growth the past few years has outpaced that of the state, enabling the district to gain some ground.
Mayo-Brown said she would like to see Fall River rise to the top of that group.
“As long as we keep that acceleration growing, you’ll see us aggressively climb to the top performing urban districts, because we’re outpacing the state and we’re outpacing our urban peers,” she said.
“The superintendent and the School Committee are working much more effectively as a governance team. Good things are happening; we’re very optimistic,” said DESE Deputy Commissioner Alan Ingram. “And more importantly, the students have been a beneficiary.”
Ingram said the work between committee and superintendent is far from over.
“All relationships require work,” Ingram said, and “a conscious effort to be more collaborative.”
“Fall River Public Schools is certainly a better district today than when they began the recovery plan,” Costa said. “I think we’re on sound footing to continue to make progress in the district. I think it took some time to develop. I am pretty confident that progress will continue.”
Martins last week said that while he’s “happy that the Department of Education has taken away the stigma of being watched,” he is not convinced enough progress has been made in improving student achievement to achieve a previous state-set goal for narrowing proficiency gaps.
“What I see is more of the same,” Martins said. “We have made some pretty good strides.”
Martins used an analogy of running the Boston Marathon to explain his position on the district’s progress. “The first year, you don’t quite make to Heartbreak Hill. And the next year you make it half way up the hill.
“But the goal is crossing that finish line,” Martins said.
Others seem focused on the progress that is happening.
“We just want to see continuous progress for students,” Chester said, adding that continuity in Fall River’s leadership and a consistent improvement plan “make the difference.”
Mayo-Brown said the district’s culture has become more student-centered. Social and emotional learning have become components of teaching.
Left out early in the recovery process was teacher input in schools’ decision-making, Mayo-Brown said, “because we had to make decisions quickly and demonstrate to the state that we could put ourselves on this path.
“We’ve gotten it to where it is now. But we will plateau unless teachers get very involved in shared decision-making around what needs to happen,” Mayo-Brown said.
“It’s been a journey,” Mayo-Brown said. “There were times where it’s been sort of a process.”
She said the community wants its children to succeed, as well.
“I feel that in the community, that people want Fall River children to be successful, and that doesn’t happen in every community across the state.”