Lawrence Schools, A Study in Contrasts

As part of researching my story in last month’s issue of the magazine, I arranged for a tour of Lawrence High School. I also had the opportunity to visit Lawrence Catholic Academy with Father Paul O’Brien as my guide. While I saw a number of hardworking teachers and dedicated students at Lawrence High, the fact remains that the city’s school system is struggling more than nearly all others in Massachusetts, and in an unprecedented turn of events, was taken over in January by state receiver Jeffrey Riley, formerly the chief innovation officer for Boston public schools. Lawrence Catholic Academy, however, presented an encouraging counter-example: the success of that school proves that good education is still possible in Lawrence, if only corrupt and incompetent public officials — like former Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy, recently convicted of fraud and embezzlement and sentenced to 90 days in jail — can be effectively replaced.

The inside of Lawrence High School is bright and cheerful, with cascades of natural light and the sweeping, atrium-like space of a college student union. The building is organized into six distinct schools: Health and Human Services; Humanities and Leadership Development; Performing Fine Arts; International; Math, Science and Technology; and Business Management and Finance. During a visit to the Math, Science and Technology wing, vice principal Sean McCarthy ushers me into an advanced placement calculus class taught by Dr. Allen Scheier.

Scheier scribbles a problem on the board. “I’m not going to let you use your calculators on this,” he says. “You have to learn how to use your brains.” One of the students offers a solution to part of the problem, and Scheier asks, “Who taught you to do subtraction?” Everyone laughs.

It’s clear that the best teachers at Lawrence High are trying to push, prod, and pull their students toward the most valuable asset they have, intellectual curiosity, though it’s not easy here, even in the advanced classes. I have a similar experience in an honors biology class where Euclides Pichardo, a solidly built, goateed instructor, presides over a quiet, attentive class of 30 students. Using his laptop, Pichardo throws a slide up on the smart board that depicts a cell dividing. “Mother and father’s DNA merged to create you. A totally unique person — that’s why you’re all different,” he says. When one student asks him to explain PMAT again — prophase, metaphase, anaphase, and telophase — Pichardo says, “If you need more time, I’m always here after school.”

It is difficult to overstate the number and size of the problems affecting Lawrence schools. Called “chronically underperforming” in the recent district review completed by the Massachusetts Department of Education, Lawrence schools have a 50 percent drop out rate, the highest in the state. The schools rate in the bottom 1 percent of English Language proficiency among public school systems in the state (24.2 percent of students have been deemed insufficiently skilled in English to participate normally in class), and are woefully understaffed by teachers trained to work with students who face these types of challenges. School suspensions are much higher than the state average, and discipline problems abound, as I detailed in ”City of the Damned.”

Dr. Edward Reynoso, the principal of Lawrence High’s Business Management and Finance School, explains that part of the challenge in Lawrence is “we have a very transient community. A lot of our students don’t stay here. If we could get them to stay from third grade to graduation, we could have success.”

Reynoso acknowledges that a lot of money is being spent on education in Lawrence (amazingly, for all its financial problems, the city is in the top third of Massachusetts towns when it comes to spending per pupil — more than even tony suburbs like Westwood, Sharon, and Cohasset) but argues that it’s being allocated improperly. “There’s a lot of resources here, but we have to re-align them. We have to put them in the right place,” he says. “Instead of supporting kids who are failing, we should be supporting them before they fail.”

There are more problems: Disciplinary actions like out-of-school suspensions can affect the performance reviews (and bonuses) of Lawrence public school principals, which teachers union president Frank McLaughlin tells me results in many incidents going unreported, or being treated as minor offenses. All of that has an effect on student and teacher morale, McLaughlin says. During the week that I visited Lawrence High, 30 students were serving in-house suspensions. And 15 students from grades 6 through 12 were serving 45-day suspensions at the old high school in north Lawrence, which is now tagged with the Orwellian name “School for Exceptional Students.”

A mile from the public high school, at Lawrence Catholic Academy, a pre-K through grade 8 school with 511 students, it appears that a great deal more is being done with a lot less. Father Paul O’Brien is chairman of the board of trustees and pastor of Saint Patrick’s church, which merged with another local Catholic school a couple years ago. In a second grade classroom, neat rows of uniformed children share their storytelling skills, including a tiny, black-haired girl who has written about an evil witch who’s cast a spell on people, turning them into her “minions.

The student body is predominantly Hispanic, and though tuition is a little over $3,000 a year, “very few (parents) pay full freight,” O’Brien says, adding that some families pay as little as $500 per year and some attend for free. There are seldom any discipline problems, and zero tolerance for violence or disruptions. He says he’s had to expel only one student in the past few years.

Though parents who go to the trouble to seek out schooling alternatives are inherently going to be more involved in their kids’ education, O’Brien points out that he works with kids from the very same neighborhoods that attend the public schools. The message is clear: kids from Lawrence can and will excel if the abundant resources that have been made available are used properly.

According to O’Brien, Lawrence Catholic Academy students have achieved 100 percent English proficiency across all grades (much better than that district figure). The academy also has a 100 percent eighth grade graduation rate, with 82 percent being admitted to “select” high schools — which includes private schools and public high schools that have selection standards for admission.

“This is the hands-on proof that education in Lawrence can work,” O’Brien says. “Everyone says education in Lawrence is impossible. That’s not true.”