Reopening Haverhill Schools: Challenges and Possibilities

On May 27th the Haverhill Education Coalition conducted an online panel discussion on reopening Haverhill Public Schools (HPS). Panelists included Dr. Margaret Marotta, HPS Superintendent, Katie Vozeolas, Director of HPS Nursing and Health Services, HPS, and Anthony Parolisi, President of the Haverhill Education Association (teachers union). This event provided an opportunity for serious public discussion of the difficult choices facing Haverhill and other school districts looking to move back from distance learning to in-school education. A video of the 98-minute discussion is posted here on Facebook.  The event presentation slides identify some of the reopening issues facing schools and include charts on COVID-19 in our local eastern Massachusetts area. The presentation is available here:  HEC Reopening Haverhill Schools 2020-05-27

This type of public discussion is important for communities facing difficult public choices about education and public health. Broad understanding and participation is needed from students, parents, teachers, staff, and taxpayers, because all be asked to share in sacrifices for our system of public education to continue its important role in preparing our next generation for the future.

Schools reopening? Not so fast.

Around the world and around the country “Post-COVID-19” re-openings are in the news. What does this mean for reopening Haverhill Public Schools and other nearby districts where plans and budgets are now being developed for the summer and for the 2020-21 school year?

First, it is important to be clear that nowhere in the world is yet in a post-COVID-19 period. We will not be post-COVID-19 until an effective vaccine is widely available and this is most likely many months or even a year or more away. The continuing threat of COVID-19 needs to be effectively addressed in any school reopening plan.

Second, we need to realize that here in Haverhill, in Essex County, and in Massachusetts overall, we have been hit harder by COVID-19 than most other places around the country and around the world. Our own Essex County ranks 24th among the more than 3,000 counties in the United States in total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Around the world, many of the countries that are reopening schools have had many fewer COVID-19 cases and deaths on a per-capita basis (see Chart 1).  Compared to other communities, confronting the higher case levels in our area will take more resources for tracking and tracing, and it will probably take longer to control COVID-19 sufficiently to permit safe return to schools.

Chart 1

Third, high rates of new cases persist in our area. While daily new cases in Essex County have recently been declining, they are continuing at a higher per-capita level than in other Massachusetts counties and the state average (see Chart 2). As of May 13, Essex County had 1,359 new confirmed COVID-19 cases identified in the preceding seven days. At this rate, we would see more than 70,000 new cases per year in Essex County alone.  As businesses begin to reopen, the decline in new cases may not continue or new case counts may rise.

Chart 2

These statistics should be unsettling for cities and school systems, which have not received specific guidance on when to reopen schools. While we are nowhere near herd immunity, a seasonal or episodic decline in coronavirus infections and increased control of the virus might enable a return to school for the fall semester. On the other hand, if rates of new cases remain near current levels or resurge with business reopening, it might be advisable to continue remote learning for most or all students into the 2020-21 school year. Reopening safely will require that our local COVID-19 prevalence falls low enough so that (1) COVID-19 cases entering schools are rare and (2) the capacity to test, track, trace and quarantine grows high enough so that any outbreak is assured to be contained without spreading widely. 

A fourth factor to consider is whether detailed plans are in place and sufficient resources are allocated for schools to operate safely under new COVID-19 requirements. Local school districts must consider whether and how much to move away from the current remote learning model. Districts will need to implement procedures to minimize student contacts during transportation and throughout the school day. This could include testing of all students plus daily health screening, perhaps with temperature checks. School committees will need to make decisions and commit sufficient funds early enough so that facility and operational changes can be developed and put in place before students return to school.

Coordination is needed between schools and the public health system, particularly to facilitate community tracking and to ensure that the virus is not spread from the community to the schools or from the schools to the community. When new cases emerge it will be necessary to follow up each case, identify recent contacts, trace those contacts, notify them of COVID-19 exposure, and ensure 14-day quarantine. The new Massachusetts COVID-19 Community Tracking Collaborative (CTC) announced by Governor Baker on April 3 includes Partners in Health, which is hiring and overseeing a workforce for contact tracing within Massachusetts. It will be important to verify that their efforts are sufficient to detect new cases and to quickly contain any new outbreak in our area.

These difficult times will continue for some months ahead – until an effective COVID-19 vaccine is found and made widely available. There is no guarantee that this will happen any time soon. Our local school districts face difficult choices and implementation challenges for teachers, administrators, and staff. Shared sacrifices by workers, parents, and taxpayers will be required.  We will need to continue social distancing and refrain from high-contact shopping, entertainment, and businesses interactions. Parents will need to play a greater role in their children’s education. Taxpayers will need to support additional COVID-19-related budget requirements to keep our schools and our community safe.

Every generation faces challenges, and our current challenges can be overcome by maintaining our commitment to the education of our next generation as we contend with the health threats and economic adversities brought on by COVID-19.

Note: This piece also appeared in the Eagle-Tribune.

COVID-19 in Haverhill and Other Gateway Cities

(Updated to May 13th)

  • Gateway Cities have been hit harder by the COVID-19 virus than has Massachusetts statewide.
  • The number COVID-19 cases has been growing faster in Haverhill than in other Gateway Cities.
  • Haverhill is now in the middle of Gateway Cities ranking 12th among 26 Gateway Cities in cumulative COVID-19 cases per capita.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health recently released COVID-19 case counts by city. Cumulative COVID-19 case per capita are on average 46 percent higher in the Massachusetts Gateway Cities than state wide (see Chart 1).

Chart 1

Among the 26 Gateway Cities Haverhill ranked 12th, up from 15th on April 29th and 19th on April 14th. This puts Haverhill just above the middle of this group of Massachusetts cities, many with diverse populations and facing economic challenges. While many factors affect case counts (including the amount of testing), moving up in the cumulative case-count-per-capita ranking raises some concern.

Chart 2 below shows the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population, as identified by May 13, 2020.

Chart 2

Essex County COVID-19 Cases are Above State Average

(Updated to May 26, 2020)

Haverhill parents, teachers, school administrators and city leaders all need to make plans about education from home and reopening of schools closed due to coronavirus (COVID-19). Some have suggested that decisions to reopen businesses and schools might eventually be made county by county if patterns of coronavirus cases differ greatly among counties. This Benchmark Blog post looks at data available to date on coronavirus cases by county for the largest eastern Massachusetts counties.

This post considers cumulative and daily data on number of confirmed COVID-19 cases for the period for March 20 through May 26, 2020.  Case counts come from Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH). County population figures come from the UMass Donahue Institute. I computed cases per 1000 of county population (2018) for the largest Massachusetts counties and statewide. Keep in mind that counts reflect not only the incidence of the disease but also the amount of testing that is done. For May 26 the state DPH reported  only 4,920 tests. Cumulatively 17.1 percent of all 545,481 tests were positive.

Chart 1 shows Essex and the other non-Boston areas are on lower paths than Suffolk County. Essex County confirmed case counts per capita are now consistently well above the statewide average after tracking very near the state average up to April 2nd.  Essex County cumulative cases per capita are now 27.4 percent above the state average, and 35.5 percent above neighboring Middlesex County.

Chart 1

Chart 2 shows results for new cases reported daily. The greater day-to-day variation reflects the smaller numbers and possible day-of-the-week differences (fewer new cases tend to be reported on weekends) for testing and/or reporting. Suffolk County is tracking higher than other counties. As noted below, cases counts from April 13 to April 22 were under-reported to DPH by one laboratory company. The delayed cases were included in counts April 23 and 24, producing the spike in counts for those days.

Chart 2

Chart 3 presents these data for new cases as a seven-day moving average. This smooths out the day-to-day variation and avoids any day-of-the-week reporting effects. Part of the flattening of the curves April 13 to 22 is due to under-reporting in that period (see note below). The corrections on April 23 and 24th inflated case counts for those days and also inflates the 7-day moving average through April 30. So the apparent decline on April 30 and May 1 is largely due to reporting (the correction moving out of the moving average).

Monitoring updates to this chart may help identify when the COVID spread begins to slow in Massachusetts counties. A slowing of the spread of the virus would be indicated by a downturn in the 7-day moving average of new cases (not counting the drop due to reporting adjustment at the end of April).

Chart 3

Recently, in the first half of May, average new cases per capita declined particularly in Suffolk and Essex Counties, which had the highest rates in April. New cases are also trending downward statewide. Worcester County has seen the least decline and its new cases per capita are now tracking above the state average. With an apparent gradual decline in May, the rate of new COVID-19 cases in the larger Eastern Massachusetts counties are now closer together in the range of 10 to 20 daily new cases per 100,000 population.

There were 5,768 new confirmed COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts in the past seven days to May 26. This is down from 8,593 cases in the seven days preceding that period. These case counts, which reflect intensity of testing as well as prevalence of COVID-19, show the continued need for diligent social distancing and caution about reopening nonessential  businesses.  They do not yet point to an early end to COVID-19 threats in Essex and other eastern Massachusetts counties.

Note: The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) on April 24th noted a reporting error that reduced case counts for data from April 13 to April 23 due to a backlog in reporting cases from Quest Diagnostics. DPH provided revised case counts for that period for Massachusetts, but not for individual counties. The results reported here thus reflect under-reporting of COVID case counts for April 13 to 22 and increased case counts for April 24 to account for the previous under-counts

Essex County Near State Average in COVID-19 Case Counts

(Updated to April 9, 2020)

Haverhill parents, teachers, school administrators and city leaders all need to make plans about education from home and reopening of schools closed due to coronavirus (COVID-19). Some have suggested that decisions to reopen businesses and schools might eventually be made county by county if patterns of coronavirus cases differ greatly among counties. This Benchmark Blog post looks at data available to date on coronavirus cases by county for the largest eastern Massachusetts counties.

This post considers cumulative and daily data on number of confirmed COVID-19 cases for the period for March 20 through April 9.  Case counts come from Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH). County population figures come from the UMass Donahue Institute. I computed cases per 1000 of county population (2018) for the largest Massachusetts counties and statewide. Keep in mind that counts reflect not only the incidence of the disease but also the amount of testing that is done. The state DPH reported 8,922 total patients tested on March 22 (the first day for which the number tested is reported for all laboratories) and 94,958 cumulative cases tested by April 9. About 19.9 percent of all cases tested were positive. The percentage positive has been rising steadily.

Chart 1 shows Essex County case counts per capita are rising at a similar rate to the statewide average, so close that until about April 3rd the lines closely overlap in the graph below. Essex and the other non-Boston areas appear to be on lower paths than Suffolk County. Essex County had been tracking near the state average, but its cumulative cases per capita is now 8 percent above the state average, and 18 percent above neighboring Middlesex County.

Chart 1

Chart 2 shows results for new cases reported daily. The greater day-to-day variation reflects the smaller numbers and possible day-of-the-week differences (fewer new cases reported on weekends) for testing and/or reporting. Suffolk County is tracking higher than other counties.

Chart 2

Chart 3 presents these data for new cases as a seven-day moving average. This smooths out the day-to-day variation and avoids any day-of-the-week reporting effects. Monitoring updates to this chart may help identify when the COVID spread begins to slow in Massachusetts counties. A slowing of the spread of the virus would be indicated by a downturn in the 7-day moving average curves.

Chart 3

The results indicate an upward trajectory for COVID-19 cases in all these counties. The results to date show that the less densely populated counties are tracking below Suffolk County in new cases per day per capita.  Over the past seven days (to April 9) Essex County had more new cases per capita than the state average or other eastern Massachusetts counties.

For Haverhill, these county-level results suggest that we in Essex County are on an upward path for coronavirus. Local closures and diligent social distancing can help keep Essex County’s trajectory flatter, and may, if effective, help produce fewer COVID-19 cases and deaths per capita than will occur in Boston.

Ten Options for Haverhill’s 2020-21 School Budget

Haverhill’s School budget deserves special attention this year. This is not only because of this year’s increased state funding from the Student Opportunity Act, but also because of profound uncertainties about the COVID-19 virus, the economy, and future state and local revenues.

Every spring the Haverhill School Committee considers the budget for the following school year. The school budget is included in the city budget and approved by the City Council, usually by the start of the City fiscal year on July 1. This year the budget will follow the Superintendent’s submission (by April 1st) of a three-year plan for spending new Student Opportunity Act (SOA) funds. Decisions being made now will shape the future direction of Haverhill Public Schools.  This year especially, we need to ensure that we make the right choices about where school resources, including new funds from the SOA, will go.

Here are ten options for school spending which were discussed at the Haverhill Education Coalition online meeting (March 18, 2020). Each of these program options is supported by evidence from successful implementation in other districts.  Each is relevant and timely for application in Haverhill. However, we cannot afford to pursue all of these changes at once.

These options are:

  • Option 1: Support School-wide Transformations
  • Option 2: Strengthen Early Literacy programs
  • Option 3: Build Project-Based Learning into High School Curriculum
  • Option 4: Improve Classroom Culture
  • Option 5: Meet Demand for Extended Learning
  • Option 6: Invest in Workforce Diversification
  • Option 7: Expand Instructional Coaching
  • Option 8: Increase the Number of Teachers
  • Option 9: Strengthen School Leadership
  • Option 10: Increase Maintenance

Among the points raised by those participating in the meeting were the following:

  • School-wide transformation, such as has been successfully implemented at Tilton Elementary School, is a proven approach that improves student achievement. Transformation, however, relies on simultaneous implementation of many components. While some might wish to unbundle the approach and only implement some components, the synergies of all components working together seem to be important to the model’s success.
  • Priority should be given to early literacy as a foundation for learning in later grades.
  • Co-teaching for classes that include students with special needs could be a means of improving classroom culture and reducing disruptive classroom behavior. Co-teaching focused on social and emotional learning might also reduce the need for separate special education classes.
  • Project-based learning, while valuable for students, is challenging to implement. It would require planning and training of teachers in methods such as those of the Expeditionary Learning model. Perhaps the District could budget for planning the first year, training the second, and implementation the third, as Student Opportunity Act funds are increased over time.
  • Extended learning can take many forms. Haverhill already has varied voluntary options, including summer and after school programs. The Mayor would like to extend the school year, but he seemed to stop short of proposing that for the coming year.
  • Strong leadership is critical to successfully implementing any of the options. Provisions should be made to support budget initiatives with necessary leadership resources.
  • Improving school maintenance could create a better climate of respect for education, improve school morale, and encourage students to protect facilities.

To assist the Superintendent, the School Committee, parents, and wider community as they consider school spending options, I have attached a short summary of each option (and some sub-options) in selected slides from the March 18 meeting. I indicate the issue each option addresses and note evidence that supports use of the approach. Many of the options include sub-options that represent alternative ways to address the issue. Finally, I note what impact might be expected to result from implementing each option. I have not included estimated budget amounts; these would need to be developed by the District staff and will depend on just what form of program specifics as proposed by the District and the proposed scope of implementation.

For this descriptive catalog of ten options for Haverhill’s 2020-21 school budget see this linked Haverhill School Budget Options March 2020 document.

“Haverhill Plans for the Student Opportunity Act” Workshop Summary

The Student Opportunity Act (SOA) passed in 2019 will provide additional funds for Massachusetts cities that submit a three-year evidence-based plan to reduce achievement gaps among student groups.

On February 29th 2020 the Haverhill Education Coalition held a workshop, “Haverhill Plans for the Student Opportunity Act. The workshop for city, school, and community leaders considered the SOA financing for and identified evidence-based interventions that could be used to help close achievement gaps among Haverhill students.

The workshop was not intended to advocate for any one position or approach, but rather to help make city leaders aware of educational reforms that have been shown by research to produce good outcomes for students.

We Invited all Haverhill School Committee Members and City Councilors. Attending were School Committee members Mayor Fiorentini, Gail Sullivan Rich Rosa, Paul Magliocchetti and City Councilors Melinda Barrett, John Michitson, Joe Bevilacqua, Colin LePage, and Tim Jordan. Superintendent Margaret Marotta, Assistant Superintendent Michael Pfifferling and Tilton Upper and Lower Principal Bonnie Antkowiak were speakers at the workshop.

The workshop ran for nearly three hours on Saturday morning. This post contains a summary of the main points. I have also posted here the HEC SOA Workshop Slides and the HEC SOA Workshop Resources Document distributed to participants.

SOA authorizes more funds for Haverhill schools

This mostly comes as additional state funding targeted to districts with many low-income students. We expect $6.9 million more in Chapter 70 aid for FY 21 (the 2020-21 school year) and smaller additional increases each year over the following six years. In total the expected funds are enough to increase real school resources per student.  This funding depends on money being appropriated by the state legislature

Haverhill has gaps to fill

Where are Haverhill’s Gaps? Here are some indications of where Haverhill could close gaps among student groups:

  • Among 20-17-18 graduates of Haverhill High School by race ethnicity, 56 percent white went on to attend 4-year colleges; but only 16 percent of Latino students did.
  • The percentage of Haverhill’s third grade students meeting or exceeding expectations on MCAS ELA (reading) tests for economically disadvantaged and Latino student are only two-third that of not economically disadvantaged and white students.
  •   2018-19, prior to the recent Right-Size Plan, resources, particularly the number of teachers per 100 students varied widely among Haverhill schools.
  • Funding from the SOA could be used to make sure opportunities are more equally available among schools and student groups.

Haverhill can build on previous successes at Tilton and other schools

The experience at Tilton is particularly instructive. Tilton has seen improved performance measures including attendance, test scores, and state percentile ranking. Principal Bonnie Antkowiak reported on efforts at the school that made this possible including creating leadership team, coaching support in the classroom, data and conversations about data, and extended-day tutoring. All these things require time and/or resources. SOA funds could be used to support replicating recent local successes in other Haverhill schools.

Maximizing Teacher Impacts

A straightforward way to affect student outcomes is to add teachers to reduce class sizes. The research shows that the largest effects of reducing class size on student achievement are found when reducing class size in lower grades, for students from less advantaged families and for less well prepared teachers. We note that the Tilton success involved having more teachers relative to the number of students.

For many years research failed to show much measurable benefit from teacher professional development (often conferences and courses). Recent studies, however, have shown that instructional coaching, works to improve both teacher skills in the classroom and student achievement. Note that Coaching was part of the transformation intervention at Tilton Elementary School.

Enhancing the Educational Experience

The workshop looked at ways to change the content of education. Participants watched two short videos that are linked here. One shows E.D. Hirsch, who argues that students reading comprehension improves when the have more contextual knowledge to understand the text. Providing all students exposure to defined set of core knowledge allows teachers in upper grades to build on a foundation shared by all students.   

A second video on Expeditionary Learning showed an example of a school that adopted a project-based approach to developing students’ collaborative problem solving skills. The approach is designed to better prepare students for college and careers by focusing on skills that won’t be replaced by computers.

Extending learning time is another way to enrich student learning. A 2016 study of extend learning in 46 Boston public schools reported  favorable results for ELA and math, especially for black and Hispanic students. Haverhill’s Mayor noted an article in the Atlantic that    The Superintendent noted the many types of extended learning already in place in Haverhill schools.

Summary of Evidence

This workshop was not a comprehensive review of education research, but with our targeted effort we did find evidence to support several types of initiatives that could be consistent with the Student Opportunity Act goals and could help address achievement gaps within Haverhill Public Schools. We note:

  • Evidence reviewed at the workshop supports:
    • Local multifaceted transformation with added resources
    • More teachers (smaller class sizes)
    • Instructional coaching over other forms of professional development
    • Expanded learning time for minority and economically disadvantaged students
    • More diverse staff that matches student race/ethnicity
  • Evidence may support:
    • Project-based learning
    • Content-rich curriculum

Next Steps

Haverhill Public Schools Superintendent, Dr. Margaret Marotta, plans for obtaining input form teachers and the community and presenting Haverhill’s Three-Year plan to the School Committee before the April 1st due date as requires by the Student Opportunity Act

Haverhill school spending still in the basement despite some good efforts to move up

Realtors, city businesses, and others concerned with Haverhill’s reputation will need to wait at least another year to see if Haverhill will move up from the bottom of rankings in per-student school spending.

Recently (December 5, 2019) the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) posted its annual measures of net school spending for FY 2018. In these latest DESE statistics Haverhill appears to be stuck in the bottom 10 percent of Massachusetts districts in per-student spending, moving up only one position from #303 to #302 among 322 school districts and remaining dead last in per-student spending among the 26 Gateway Cities.

Haverhill increased its overall school budget for 2017-18 by 7% over the prior year and enrollment increased less than 1 percent. However, Haverhill per-student spending was up only 4 percent and still below 82 percent of the state average. (See chart below.) So what happened – or didn’t happen?

A closer look at the DESE data shows that spending under the School Committee’s budget was in fact up 7 percent. Spending on administration, instruction, and maintenance all up more than 7 percent; and spending in the category of “athletics, student activities, and security” was up more than 15 percent. However, “net school spending” as defined by DESE includes expenditures from the City budget, in addition to the School Committee’s budget. The City portion covers such things as employee and retiree benefits. For FY 2018, school spending on the city side went down 4.4% in FY 2018.

The reduction in the city portion of Haverhill school spending is attributable to employee and retiree insurance in the DESE Net School Spending Compliance reports for FYs 2017 and 2018. The total of these two lines was $1.26 million less in FY 2018 than 2017. This reduction reflects the city’s switching to the Group Insurance Commission (GIC) to obtain lower cost health insurance coverage from the state’s “largest single purchaser of health insurance”. Haverhill was the fourth Gateway city to join GIC’s health insurance program.

So, while the 7 percent increase in the FY 2018 School Budget did result in 7 percent more spending on instruction, overall spending per student (including the city portion) went up less than the state average, and not enough more than other Gateway Cities to move Haverhill up in the per-student spending rankings.

School budget increases for FY 2019 and FY 2020 were each less than 7 percent but more than inflation and enrollment growth. Perhaps that will be enough to affect Haverhill’s rank in DESE statistics for those years, but with tax revenues up, wage growth exceeding overall inflation, and the prospect of additional state funds, other cities will be increasing their school spending too.

As we enter 2020, Haverhill faces choices about the uses of additional Chapter 70 funding from the Student Opportunity Act (SOA). That Act will provide both additional funds and new accountability requirements for Haverhill and other Gateway Cities. This may help reverse the recent downward slide in Gateway City school spending relative to the state average (as can be seen in the chart).

Getting a better deal on health insurance helps Haverhill keep school costs a bit lower. However, if Haverhill is ever to get out of the basement in per-student spending rankings, leaders will need to keep pressing for more adequate funding and to make smart choices about the use of SOA funding.

Note on DESE data: Per-student spending is one the most prominent measures, reported by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). This past month (December) DESE released its data on per-pupil spending for fiscal 2018 (the 2017-18 school year). DESE data, particularly for spending, lags behind due to reporting. It is like looking in a rear view mirror – where we have been not where we are going. But the DESE data provide the best way to compare Haverhill school metrics those of other Massachusetts cities.

Coming Out of the Dark on Dropouts

A feeling of relief about recently reported Haverhill dropout numbers needs to be tempered with continuing concerns about how those numbers are reported. Recently released data on dropouts may reveal less about students leaving school than they do about shortcomings of the Haverhill school administration in reporting and using school performance data. Following the recent misreporting of data on dropouts, Haverhill Public Schools will need to rebuild trust with the School Committee and the public and work toward building its capability to use accountability data to drive improvements in school performance.

A recent (February 26, 2018) press release from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) highlights a decline in dropout rates over the past five years in five urban school districts, including Haverhill. However, with the Haverhill Superintendent himself invalidating past dropout figures in his report last October, it is hard to know what to make of the recent data. The chart below shows Haverhill’s dropout rate as reported by DESE based on district-submitted data. Starting in 2009 Haverhill’s reported dropout rates ran well above the trend of other cities; only in 2017 did reported rates return to more typical levels by means of one dramatic drop (for the most recent reported school year 2016-17).

It is important to recognize that this chart may not accurately represent the students who actually dropped out. Rather it represents what the district reported to DESE. The Superintendent has stated that data on dropouts and transfers were incorrectly reported to DESE for some unspecified number of years. He publicly provided revised data from one year (2015-16) indicating that more than half the students that were reported as dropouts (59 students for that school year) should have been classified as transfers.  (This was discussed in a Benchmark Blog post of October 29, 2017.) We have no data from earlier years to substantiate just when a meaningful decrease in dropouts may have occurred. This information is lost to history. The decline in reported dropouts for the 2016-17 school year is based on data Haverhill submitted in the fall of 2017 after revising its procedures for identifying transfers. The sudden decline in the reported dropout rate is thus a result of the change in reporting procedures, made at least in part to address long-standing errors in Haverhill reporting, not of a sudden change in the number of students dropping out.

For eight years Haverhill was an outlier with its high dropout numbers. If these figures were not correct, it seems that district leadership was flying blind for years on the dropout situation. Now we are asked to trust that the dropout rate really did decline. We are told that more than 50 students annually were reported as dropouts who had actually transferred to other schools, mostly out of state and outside the DESE student tracking system. The district is now reporting more students as transfers and fewer as dropouts. If previously too few were identified as transfers, one might reasonably ask whether too many are now being classified as transfers – that is, labeled transfers without proper documentation that they have reenrolled elsewhere.

DESE expects school districts to identify transfers when they receive a transcript request from another school or communication from a parent. Non-returning students not identified as transfers are to be reported to DESE as dropouts. While DESE is able to identify in-state transfers to public schools through its tracking system, it must rely on the district to accurately report out-of-state transfers and to count only those for whom reenrollment elsewhere can be appropriately documented. See DESE Dropout Reporting Guidelines.

A remaining problem for Haverhill is a lack of trust in the capabilities of the current school administration to accurately report and effectively use school performance data. Whether dropout reporting problems arose due to inattention, lack of effort, or just poor communications and lax oversight of reporting, Haverhill citizens do not now know what to believe. The dropout rate, a useful performance indicator in many cities, has been reduced to an unanswered question in Haverhill. We do not know to what extent good work in the schools went unrecognized and what opportunities were lost to better understand student needs and craft initiatives to address them. That situation needs to be avoided going forward. In today’s performance-oriented world of data-driven management, urban schools will fall behind if they are not capable of effectively using the best evidence to guide improvement.

Trust and transparency are important if data are to be used to improve Haverhill schools. A new superintendent will need to reestablish trust that Haverhill is accurately reporting performance statistics. That will require careful review of procedures, close supervision, and direct administrative oversight of data submission to ensure that Haverhill is neither over-reporting nor under-reporting dropouts. A new superintendent deserves to start with a verified baseline of key performance measures. He or she will need to ensure that DESE guidelines are being followed with clear and transparent procedures for distinguishing between transfers and dropouts. The School Committee should expect a candid report on procedures, past and present, to ensure they are now in good order to support accurate reporting.

There is much work ahead if we are to achieve the School Committee’s goal to “Make the district more data driven and performance oriented.” Accurate and openly reported data practices would be a good start. Using the data effectively to guide improvements would be a next step.