Leading a school district turnaround in Massachusetts

Leading a school district turnaround in Massachusetts

Pia Durkin’s urban ed experience and special ed skills move mountains
Superintendent Pia Durkin visits classrooms in her district to learn about the students and staff and their needs.

Pia Durkin took the reins as superintendent of New Bedford Public Schools, one of the lowest-performing districts in Massachusetts, this past July facing a Herculean task.

She inherited a poorly-managed district that had recently laid off more than 150 employees due to a $3 million deficit found in the middle of the 2013-14 school year. With a graduation rate and English and math proficiency scores well below the state average, the school system just narrowly avoided a Level 5 designation, which would mean a total takeover by the state.

Now, she is leading a massive turnaround plan for the city’s high school that will require 50 percent of the faculty to be replaced, with all teachers having to reapply for their jobs.

Getting such a troubled district on the right track will be no easy task, but New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell says choosing Durkin for the task was easy. She was successful in her previous role as superintendent for Attleboro Public Schools—another urban district in Massachusetts.

With 6,000 students, Attleboro’s school system is about half the size of New Bedford’s, but the two shared similar challenges. Under Durkin’s leadership, Attleboro schools’ dropout rate fell from 5 percent to under 2 percent, while the graduation rate rose above the state average to about 85 percent.

Academic rigor also improved—Advanced Placement course participation quadrupled from 73 to 412 students, with 71 percent qualifying for college credit. She also helped sustain a five-year trend of accelerated improvement in English language arts and math that outpaced the state in all grades.

“These are achievements that we’d like to see here in our district,” says Mitchell.

Committed to urban ed

Durkin says the challenge is welcome given her expertise in urban education. “I cut my teeth on urban education in its purest form,” says Durkin, who has more than 40 years’ experience working in city schools.

New Bedford Public Schools, Mass.

      • Schools: 25
      • Students: 12,600
      • Staff and faculty: 1,563
      • Per child expenditure: $13,636
      • Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 70%
      • Dropout rate: 24%
      • Website: www.newbedford.k12.ma.us

Durkin grew up in Queens, New York, where she attended a small Catholic all-girls’ high school, and then moved on to Queens College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education.

After getting her master’s and doctorate from New York University and teaching in various New York City public schools, she landed a job as special education director in Providence, R.I. Following six years there, she took on the same role for Boston Public Schools, where she eventually became assistant superintendent of special education, guidance and other unified student services.

Prior to her tenure in Attleboro, she was an associate director with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, where she helped school districts redesign central offices with the goal of narrowing achievement gaps.

Turnaround plan

The turnaround plan’s objectives include:

  • Restructuring the high school into an upper and lower school, with a focus on ninth grade—the time at which students start to think about or do drop out 
  • A new class schedule to include college and career counseling sessions, and more time spent in core classes such as English and math to help boost proficiency rates of 76 percent and 49 percent respectively in sophomore ELA and math closer to the state averages of 91 percent and 80 percent 
  • Increasing the graduation rate of only 63 percent, which is well below the state average of 85 percent, by targeting curriculum reforms in grade 9

The district also faces a high dropout rate when it comes to special education students. The dropout rate among students with IEPs is nearly 9 percent, which is above the state average of nearly 4 percent. Twenty percent of all New Bedford’s students have IEPs.

Fortunately, Durkin says her experience as a special education director helped her learn to be both a more efficient manager and a better child advocate. Durkin says the experience trained her to focus on students’ needs first, and then work with lawyers, parents and other administrators toward consensus while devising an education plan for each student.

“Managing conflict, keeping people at the table—that is the entire job of an urban superintendent,” she says.

Staff turnover

Reaching consensus in New Bedford now might prove to be especially difficult given the contentious nature of her work. For instance, even though the turnover rate for faculty at the high school has already reached close to the required 50 percent, with retirements, resignations and last year’s layoffs, the process is still ongoing, and Durkin has the discretion to decide which teachers are retained after each one reapplies.

She is specifically looking to keep teachers who demonstrate “the will and the skill” to contribute to the turnaround. Durkin has hired several new principals and administrators and has been able to negotiate with the teachers’ union to increase teacher compensation while lengthening the school day by 33 minutes—resulting in three weeks of additional instruction time for the high school’s 2,600 students.

She has proposed a $2.2 million investment in next year’s budget to support this, as well more professional development for staff.

Involving students, families

Durkin’s strategy is to be in the schools every day, overseeing classroom teachers in action. She also holds regular meetings and open forums with parents.

“She’s not an administrator who just sits in central office and lets everybody come to her, she goes out into the schools and the community,” says Patrick Murphy, New Bedford Public Schools’ business manager.

And to make progress, it’s important to believe in the vision of a greatly improved school system, Durkin says, while devising a clear and comprehensive strategic plan to actualize it. “But it’s also about more than one person owning the agenda,” she says.

Part of the challenge of leading a district that has been low-performing for many years is helping staff and families “see the possible and describing clear and understandable steps toward reaching those goals,” he says.

The district stresses the strategy of delivering rigorous and engaging instruction that is aligned to state standards and monitored for student progress so student achievement will increase, Durkin says.

And families are empowered to become true partners in understanding what that means for their children. “The shifts that are now being demanded with Common Core standards stress higher-order thinking levels which need to be emphasized in conversations that educators have with kids, families and the public at large,” Durkin adds.

Communicating what the standards are is equally important to why educators must unlock the potential in every child to make such shifts.

Murphy also says the district is on track to meet its operating budget this year—which is unique for a district that fell so short within previous years.

Durkin’s vision of success is already starting to spread, says Mayor Mitchell. He points to the quality principals Durkin has hired, her taking charge of the finances, and improving the district’s underperforming schools, while also securing the support of the regional business community.

“Dr. Durkin has brought instant credibility to the New Bedford Public School district,” he says. “What folks know now is that Dr. Durkin is in command of her craft and is an experienced educational leader. I think the educational community in Massachusetts knows now that New Bedford is a place where change is taking place in a hurry and being executed in a credible way.”

Ioanna Opidee is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.


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