Chronically Underperforming Districts: Frequently Asked Questions
This addresses chronically under performing ("Level 5") districts. For questions about chronically under performing ("Level 5") schools, please view the Frequently Asked Questions: Chronically Underperforming Schools page.
Background information regarding Level 5 districts
Q1: What is a Level 5 District?
A Level 5 district is a "chronically underperforming" district and is both low performing and not showing signs of substantial improvement over time. A district with low performance is designated chronically underperforming by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education because of significant concerns about the capacity of the district to make the changes necessary to raise student achievement to acceptable performance levels.
In a Level 5 district, the commissioner appoints a new leader, called a receiver, who can be granted authority up to and including the powers of the superintendent and school committee. The receiver reports directly to the commissioner and is held accountable for improving the education in every school in the district for the benefit of the students. (See Question 8 for what happens with a Level 5 school in a Level 5 district.)
The authorities and flexibilities of a Level 5 designation empower a receiver to initiate an ambitious and accelerated reform agenda so that students receive the quality of education that they need to meet the high standards that we hold for all students in the Commonwealth.
Q2: How are Level 5 districts identified? What data are used?
A district is eligible for designation as chronically underperforming or Level 5 if it scores in the lowest 10% of districts statewide. This analysis includes: district performance on state assessment over a four-year period based on Composite Performance Index (CPI) in English language arts; CPI in mathematics; percentage of students scoring in the "warning" or "failing" category on state assessment; and improvement in student academic achievement. Before placing a district in Level 5, the Board considers the findings of the most recent district review report, along with quantitative indicators such as promotion, graduation and dropout rates. The Board may place an eligible district in Level 5, if the commissioner so recommends, based on an analysis of these data. Copies of District Review Reports .
Q3: How many Level 5 districts are there currently?
Currently, Lawrence Public Schools, Holyoke Public Schools, and the Southbridge Public Schools are the three Level 5 districts in the Commonwealth. Massachusetts law states that no more than 2.5% of the total number of districts can be designated Level 5 at any one time.
Q4: Why was Lawrence Public Schools designated a Level 5 district?
In designating Lawrence a Level 5 district in November 2011, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education considered many sources of data and the results of a comprehensive district review. Three-fourths of the schools in Lawrence experienced declines in student achievement from 2010 to 2011, and five of the 28 Lawrence schools were in Level 4 (the lowest performing, least improving 20% of schools in the Commonwealth). At the time Lawrence was designated Level 5, district-wide performance in English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics was among the bottom 1% of all Massachusetts school districts; Lawrence had the third lowest math Composite Performance Index (CPI) and fourth lowest ELA CPI in the Commonwealth. At that time, less than one-half of Lawrence's students graduated from high school within four years, which was the lowest graduation rate of any district in the state. Finally, the district review described inconsistent governance and leadership and insufficiently coherent and comprehensive district systems that were standing in the way of district and school leaders and staff doing their best work on behalf of Lawrence students.
The Board designated the district as Level 5 because that pathway provides the greatest opportunity for transforming the district from one of the lowest performing in the state to one where students routinely experience strong educational outcomes.
Q5: Why was Holyoke Public Schools designated a Level 5 district?
In designating Holyoke a Level 5 district in April 2015, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education considered many sources of data and the results of a comprehensive district review. In spring 2015, student achievement and growth in the Holyoke Public Schools were among the lowest in the state overall and for student subgroups, including students with disabilities and English language learners. The highest performing school in the district was at the 21st percentile among schools in its grade span, and many were in the bottom 10% of schools statewide. From 2011 to 2014, student academic achievement and growth declined in many grades and subjects, contributing to a widening proficiency gap. In fall 2013, Commissioner Chester designated Morgan Full Service Community School, one of the district's K-8 schools, chronically underperforming due to its low performance and lack of improvement over several years. In addition to the achievement data, the district's on-time graduation rate was the lowest of any K-12 district in the state and the dropout rate was one of the highest.
With the Level 5 designation, the Board's goal is to ensure that students educated in the Holyoke Public Schools are prepared for success. The authorities and flexibilities of the Level 5 designation allow for an ambitious and accelerated education reform agenda on behalf of all of Holyoke's students and their families.
Q6: Why was the Southbridge Public Schools designated a Level 5 district?
In designating Southbridge a Level 5 district in January 2016, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education considered many sources of data and the results of a comprehensive district review. In the fall of 2015, student achievement and growth in the Southbridge Public Schools were among the lowest in the state overall and for student subgroups, including students with disabilities and English language learners. The highest performing school in the district was at the 8th percentile among schools in its grade span, and many were in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide. In 2004, Southbridge was declared an underperforming (Level 4) district by the Board due to its low student performance over several years. From 2012 to 2015, student academic achievement and growth continued to decline in many grades and subjects and remained well below comparable state rates, contributing to a widening proficiency gap. In addition to the concerning achievement data, the district's out-of-school suspension and in-school suspension rates for all students in the district were almost three times the state rate in 2015. There have also been significant concerns regarding the leadership and governance of the district. Since 2011, seven individuals have served as superintendent, and there has been a similar level of turnover in other leadership positions in the district
With the Level 5 designation, the Board's goal is to ensure that students educated in the Southbridge Public Schools are prepared for success. The authorities and flexibilities of the Level 5 designation allow for an ambitious and accelerated education reform agenda on behalf of all of Southbridge's students and their families.
Q7: When a district is designated Level 5, do all of its schools also receive Level 5 designations?
A school's "Level" refers to the placement of the school in the state's Framework for School Accountability and Assistance, which classifies schools based on their student performance. Schools in a Level 5 district retain their school level classifications even though the district has been designated Level 5.
Q8: What happens to a Level 5 school in a district that is also designated Level 5?
If there is a Level 5 school in a district that is designated Level 5, the school retains its Level 5 status. The commissioner will determine whether the Level 5 school requires its own receiver or whether the district receiver can incorporate that scope of work into the Level 5 district work. If the Level 5 school continues to be managed by its own receiver, the commissioner will ensure that the school's strategies and efforts are well aligned with the district's Level 5 turnaround plan. Because of the work already underway at the Level 5 school, the commissioner and the district receiver may choose to address that school differently in the Level 5 district turnaround plan.
Process following Level 5 district designation
Q9: Once a district has been designated Level 5, what happens next?
The commissioner will name a new leader, called a receiver, to lead the Level 5 district. This receiver will report directly to the commissioner and will be accountable for improving education in every school in the district for the benefit of all students.
A Level 5 District Local Stakeholder Group will be convened with representation from teachers, parents, community representatives, and local health, workforce, early education, higher education, and others to provide recommendations for a Level 5 district turnaround plan. The receiver will begin analyzing the strengths and challenges of the district to identify strategies and next steps (e.g., instructional supports and staffing needs). The commissioner and receiver will develop a Level 5 district turnaround plan that will include priorities and strategies to accelerate student achievement, as well as measurable benchmarks of progress that connect directly to rapid improvement of outcomes for students in all of the district's schools.
Q10: How are receivers selected for Level 5 districts?
Under the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education's regulations on underperforming schools and districts, the commissioner has responsibility for appointing a receiver for a Level 5 district. The commissioner may select an individual or non-profit entity that has successfully implemented turnaround efforts in other schools or districts.
Q11: What authority does a receiver have in a Level 5 District?
In January 2010, the Governor signed a law giving significant authority to the receiver of a Level 5 district. The Level 5 district receiver is appointed by the commissioner, and has the powers of the superintendent and the school committee. The law permits the receiver to make changes in district policies and practices through the turnaround plan.
Q12: Does DESE monitor the implementation of Level 5 district turnaround plans? How will progress be tracked and reported?
The receiver and the commissioner monitor the implementation of Level 5 district turnaround plans closely, to ensure that strategies are being implemented effectively and are yielding the desired results. Changes will be made as needed to ensure that these strategies are having the desired impact on students' learning. Each plan also contains Measurable Annual Goals, which can be found in Appendix B.
There is also a statutory requirement that the commissioner and the receiver provide a written report to the school committee on a quarterly basis regarding the progress being made on the implementation of the district's turnaround plan. In addition, each year the commissioner must evaluate the receiver's performance, to assess the plan's implementation and determine whether the district has met the annual goals contained in Appendix B of the turnaround plan.
The progress monitoring and reporting activities described above are in addition to the information that Level 5 districts provide regularly to their communities and stakeholders.
Level 5 district turnaround plan
Q13: Where can I find the turnaround plan for a Level 5 district?
The Lawrence Level 5 district turnaround plan is posted on Lawrence Public Schools' website and DESE's Level 5 district page. The Holyoke Level 5 district turnaround plan is posted on Holyoke Public Schools' website and DESE's Level 5 district page. When the Southbridge Level 5 district turnaround plan is created, it will be posted on the Southbridge Public Schools' website and the DESE's Level 5 district page.
Q14: Why doesn't the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education already have a plan when a district is designated Level 5?
Massachusetts law provides for the development of a turnaround plan after a Level 5 district designation so that stakeholders can provide recommendations for the commissioner's and receiver's consideration as they develop the turnaround plan. The commissioner and receiver want stakeholders' ideas, suggestions, and input about current district initiatives that are working and those that require improvement.
Roles for district stakeholders in a Level 5 district
Q15: Do stakeholders (i.e., teachers, parents, and community members) have an opportunity to weigh in about what they think is and is not working in a Level 5 district?
After a Level 5 district designation, a Local Stakeholder Group will be convened; this group will have the opportunity to make recommendations to the commissioner and receiver for the district's Level 5 district turnaround plan. The stakeholder group includes representatives from the following groups: parents, teachers, district administrators, school committee members, teacher unions, social service agencies, the Department of Early Education and Care, the Department of Higher Education, and community members.
Q16: What role did the Local Stakeholder Groups' recommendations in Lawrence and Holyoke play in the development of their turnaround plans? How was it determined which recommendations would be included?
As part of the turnaround plan development process in each district, the commissioner and receiver reviewed and considered all of the recommendations submitted. The turnaround plans identify the many strategies that were informed by each specific Local Stakeholder Group recommendations. The commissioner and the receiver included recommended ideas and strategies that they determined would have the greatest likelihood of maximizing the rapid improvement of academic achievement of Lawrence's and Holyoke's students.
Q17: What happens to the school committee and superintendent in a Level 5 district?
In a Level 5 district, the receiver is granted powers up to and including the authority of the superintendent and school committee.
Information for teachers and staff working in a Level 5 district
Q18: What happens to teachers in a district following a Level 5 designation?
The commissioner and the receiver will engage the district's teachers in a collaborative way that values their expertise and commitment to students. However, this call to action may not be the right fit for every teacher in every building. The Level 5 district turnaround plan will address the working conditions in the district, which may include an expanded school day and school year, among other things.
Q19: Will there be changes in teaching and administrative staff in Southbridge?
The commissioner has said that there will not be mass firings of Southbridge staff. Southbridge's Level 5 district turnaround plan will outline the district's new priorities and path forward. Evaluating current district staff will be part of that process. Teachers and staff will have the opportunity to reflect on the new approach and determine if it is the right fit for them.
Q20: Why would an educator want to work in a Level 5 district?
DESE has learned from its experiences with Lawrence and Holyoke, and with Level 5 schools, that the challenges of working in a turnaround environment are strong motivation for joining the work. This includes staff who are new to education and those who have prior experience in other districts and schools. These educators are committed to making a difference for underserved students and families, and are excited to work with colleagues who share this commitment.
Q21: Do teachers and other staff in Level 5 districts retain their benefits, such as retirement benefits, when a district is designated Level 5? Do they retain union membership and representation?
Teachers and other staff in Level 5 districts continue to be employees of those districts. As employees, they continue to receive the benefits offered to employees. They also continue to be members of the related unions, and receive representation from those unions.
Information for parents and families in a Level 5 district
Q22: How can I share information about my child's experience in Southbridge or ask questions about the receivership?
The receivership team welcomes the involvement of all community stakeholders, including parents, in improving Southbridge schools. The commissioner's DESE team will be hosting community meetings to learn more about what is working well and what needs improvement in the schools. The meeting details will be posted on the Southbridge Public Schools' website.
Q23: How can I share information about my child's experience in Holyoke or ask questions about the receivership?
Holyoke welcomes the involvement of all community members, especially students and families, in improving Holyoke schools. Please contact Receiver Zrike's office with information about programs you believe are working well and those that need improvement, or with any questions you have. The office can be reached by emailing or calling (413) 534-2005. firstname.lastname@example.org
Q24: How can I share information about my child's experience in Lawrence or ask questions about the receivership?
Lawrence welcomes the involvement of all community members, especially students and families, in improving Lawrence schools. Please contact the district with questions or to provide information about what you think is working and what needs to improve. The Lawrence team can be reached by emailing or calling (978) 975-5905. Superintendent@lawrence.k12.ma.us
Exiting Level 5 district status
Q25: How does a district exit Level 5 status?
Upon the expiration of a turnaround plan for a chronically underperforming district, the commissioner conducts a review of the district to determine whether it has achieved the necessary academic and other progress required in the turnaround plan and whether the district has the capacity to continue making progress in improving performance. If the district has made significant improvement and demonstrated the capacity to continue making progress, the commissioner may determine that the district has improved sufficiently for the designation of chronically underperforming to be removed.
More information about Level 5 districts generally, and specific Level 5 districts
Q26: Where can I get more information about Level 5 districts in general?
For general information regarding DESE's work with Level 5 districts, please see the Level 5 Districts. For any questions or concerns about Level 5 districts in general, you may also email DESE at . email@example.com
Q27: Where can I get more information about the Lawrence Level 5 district receivership?
For more information regarding the work that Lawrence is doing under its Level 5 district receivership, please see the Lawrence Public Schools website. The Lawrence team can be reached by emailing or by calling (978) 975-5905. Superintendent@lawrence.k12.ma.us
Q28: Where can I get more information about the Holyoke Level 5 district receivership?
For more information specific to Holyoke's Level 5 district status, the Holyoke Public Schools website will continue to be the central location for all communications about the district. You can also reach Receiver Zrike's office by emailing or by calling (413) 534-2005. firstname.lastname@example.org