Under State Control, Are Southbridge Schools Improving?

Apr 18, 2017

Back in January, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker took a moment in his State of the Commonwealth address to mention struggling school districts that have been taken over by the state, a process known as receivership.

"We encourage the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to continue to use this tool," Baker said.

No more districts have been taken over since then, but there are currently three under state leadership: Lawrence, Holyoke and the most recent, Southbridge, a town of about 16,000 people in the central part of the state, on the border with Connecticut.

In 2015, the district's graduation rate was 64.7 percent. According to the state's education commissioner, just 41 percent of students reached proficiency in English Language Arts on the standardized test that year. The numbers were even lower in math and science. Suspension rates were high. So last January, the state took control of the Southbridge schools.

Under receivership, a state-appointed superintendent -- known as a receiver -- can hire and fire teachers pretty freely, and set priorities without the approval of the local school committee.

So over a year in, how's it going?

The Southbridge Middle/High School building.
Credit Henry Epp / NEPR

When school lets out at Southbridge's middle/high school on a March afternoon, there's a noisy swirl of adolescent energy as a circle of yellow school buses wait to take students home. Soon they're gone. It's quiet again, and I go inside to meet David Williams, a physics instructor and the head of the local teachers' union.

Williams has taught in Southbridge since 1994, and he said he's led the union off and on for the past 15 years. Unlike Holyoke, where the leader of the teacher's union was a vocal opponent of the state takeover, in Southbridge, Williams and his union welcomed it.

"We needed receivership. I don't believe this district would ever dig itself out of the hole," Williams said. There's a couple of reasons for that, he said, "one has to be that we have not done a proper superintendent search since 2010."

Williams counted eight different people who sat in the superintendent's chair in that time.

"So just imagine that you're in a boat in the middle of a lake, and one person tells you to row north," Williams said. "Then a couple minutes later, somebody else gets in the boat and says, 'Oh no, we're not going north, we're going east.'"

The result? You never get out of the middle of the lake.

Southbridge High School
Credit Henry Epp / NEPR

"They've never really been able to stick with anything long enough to gain any traction in any areas," said Dr. Jessica Huizenga. She's the state-appointed receiver for Southbridge. She came from Cambridge where she was an assistant superintendent. Huizenga said one of her biggest jobs is battling a negative perception of the town's schools.

"That really doesn't reflect the reality of what happens in classrooms every single day," said Huizenga. "There are a lot of tremendous things going on in these schools, in these classrooms. There's amazing teachers working with our kids, there are new programs that we've put in place this year."

And there's much more to come, she said. Huizenga is asking for patience. But that's not exactly what she's received so far from the head of the local school committee, Scott Lazo.

Inside Lazo's Cafe, owned by Southbridge School Committee Chairman Scott Lazo.
Credit Henry Epp / NEPR

I met him at the bar he owns: Lazo's Cafe. It's filled with football trophies from the local Pop Warner team, which he used to coach, and signs from President Donald Trump's campaign.

Lazo called the state takeover a dictatorship.

"When you put a person in charge with all the power -- finance, policy, everything -- there is no check and balance, no accountability. She just waves her hand and it happens," said Lazo, who rejoined the Southbridge School Committee shortly before the state takeover. He's served stints on both the school committee and town council over several decades, so I asked him if he takes some of the blame for some of the conditions that pre-existed the receiver.

"No," he said. "Because every time I seem to run for office, it's to put a fire out, OK? The receiver's been here a very short time. She really doesn't even know the town."

Back at the high school, teachers' union head David Williams sees it differently. He's very complimentary of Huizenga and thinks she's fit in well, but he thinks teachers need to be better compensated for some additional days they now have to work. He also said parts of the turnaround plan feel like they were cut-and-pasted from other districts under state control. Plus, he's not happy with a process called the receiver review, which 28 teachers were put under in December.

"It destroyed the morale of this building," Williams said. "We even lost teachers who weren't on the receiver review. The receiver review did very little to improve the district, but it did a lot to make people think they need to look for a new job somewhere else."

For years, the state has criticized Southbridge for failing to serve the town's growing Hispanic community. One example: for 29 percent of students, their first language is not English, but before receivership, there was no one heading the English Learners department.

No teachers under the review have been dismissed so far, but Williams said out of the 28 teachers who were scrutinized, at least 16 of them are either retiring or looking for jobs in other districts. For her part, Huizenga said the review is ongoing, and her turnaround plan does not include extensive changes to the teaching staff.

However, a central part of the turnaround plan is improving support for Southbridge students who are learning English. For years, the state has criticized Southbridge for failing to serve the town's growing Hispanic community. One example: for 29 percent of students, their first language is not English, but before receivership, there was no one heading the English Learners department. Now there is. That's a start, said Huizenga, whose mother is Puerto Rican. 

"Institutional racism or racism is not something that is unique to Southbridge," Huizenga said. "It's something that is common not only all over the commonwealth, but all over our nation, and concerns about racism or institutional racism was highlighted in earlier reports in this district in 2010 and 2015, and it had never really been confronted."

But school committee chair Scott Lazo bristles at criticism from the state that Southbridge has long neglected to reach out to its Hispanic population.

"That's a lot of bullsh--," he said. "What we have here is outreach, but...outreach is a two-way street. If there is no hand on the other side when you outreach, that's not the fault of the district, although the state would like to blame the town. This town I do not think is prejudiced. I think this town is tired of extending its hand and nobody being on the other end."

Early this year, the release of an audit of the district's special education system brought issues of race and racism in Southbridge to a head. It included some highly offensive anonymous comments -- attributed to a teacher -- that were directed at the town's Puerto Rican community. A public outcry followed, leading to a community meeting back in January, which opened up a long overdue conversation, said Dr. Huizenga.

State receiver Jessica L. Huizenga spoke of the Southbridge Public Schools turnaround plan on Friday, June 24, 2016.
Credit Michelle Williams / MassLive

"It has led to the development of a diversity leadership team of community members who are ready to undertake this conversation which I think is going to be important, not only to the healing of Southbridge, but also to us moving on into the future and ensuring equity and access and opportunity for all children, regardless of race, gender, creed, background, religion," she said.

"So do I regret making those comments public? No. Did I learn lessons in process? Yes, and I think that that's part of leadership," said Huizenga. "I think the end result was the right end result, and we're going to be a stronger community for it."

One year in, it's too early to tell whether receivership has worked in Southbridge. Test scores and graduation rates for this year won't be out for a few more months.

Huizenga said she'll be here until the job is done.