Lawrence schools outnumbered

City budget limitations mean overly full classes, state violations

LAWRENCE—State education officials are pressuring the impoverished Lawrence school system – which anticipated violating state laws this school year – to improve services for students.

Although the department is not yet seeking a court order, lawyers for the state Department of Education are reviewing ways to enforce various state regulations in this working-class city, where classes began last Wednesday.

Student enrollment figures expected this week should help show the severity of actual violations in class size and other areas, local and state education officials said.

A major concern for the state is that Lawrence – where Hispanics make up at least 55 percent of its 63,000 residents – will violate requirements of its bilingual education program.

The system’s problems, some residents and officials said, are especially serious because about 70 percent of the 11,000 students are Hispanic – most of them Puerto Rican or Dominican.

So severe are the concerns among parents about what they consider to be insufficient transportation for students and other problems, they they plan to keep their children out of school today and protest at City Hall.

Other parents have given up on the school system.

“My kids go to the parochial system because it’s so bad,” said Jose Zaiter, chairman of the Lawrence Housing Authority and a 1973 graduate of Lawrence High School. “I’m very disappointed in the way the system is going.”

State records based on July statistics show Lawrence expected to be out of compliance with laws regarding pupil-teacher ratios in bilingual education and special education programs. Another violation involved the elimination of practical arts, or home economics and industrial arts, at the elementary level.

In addition, the school system was dangerously close to violating the state requirement that kindergarten classes average no more than 25 students per teacher, the records show.

“Something has to give,” said school Superintendent James F. Scully. “Let me say I put bilingual education in compliance, then what do I do? Do I drive regular education up to 35 or 40 per class?”

Scully said the school system, operating on about $ 34 million this year, is at least $ 2 million short of achieving compliance. A court order may be the only way to force city officials to come up with more money for schools, he said.

Robert Blumenthal, counsel for the state Board of Education, said officials are considering options other than litigation.

“There’s no doubt they’re in serious noncompliance out there,” Blumenthal said. “It might get better. It might get worse.”

While placing equal importance on all the areas of noncompliance, Blumenthal said statistics showed the most violations were expected in bilingual education classrooms.

For example, of 212 bilingual education classes at the elementary and secondary school levels, 121 were expected to violate state regulations, which vary depending on the level of the students, Blumenthal said.

In special education, 31 of 106 classes were likely to violate state regulations, he said.

“To me, the bilingual problem is serious, the special education problem is serious, all of these problems are serious,” Blumenthal said.

If Lawrence cannot solve the problems, he said, state education officials could refer them to the attorney general.

Many residents and others knowledgeable about the city’s troubles said improving the school system will require extensive adjustments over time.

Several residents said the problems include an establishment community that is insensitive to the plight of newcomers and a divided Hispanic community without political power.

That combination, many say, allowed the City Council to cut $ 2.5 million from the schools budget proposed by Mayor Kevin Sullivan. A Proposition 2 1/2 override vote in August included a question to restore that money, but failed.

“We would have survived and probably been in compliance had that $ 2.5 million not been cut,” Scully said.

Some Hispanic residents said that if most students were white, money would be more available and the system stronger.

“I don’t know if you can call it racism or political power,” said Zaiter, a native of the Dominican Republic who has lived in Lawrence about 20 years.

Scully, superintendent since October 1987, downplayed concerns about racism in the system, saying teachers and other staff are trying “to equalize the opportunities” for all.

With such a tight local budget, enforcement methods used by the state in the past – such as withholding funding – could help destroy the system, said Charles L. Glenn, executive director of the state education department’s Office of Educational Equity.

Despite the budget crunch, Glenn said the improvements are sorely needed in Lawrence.

In contrast to Lawrence, statewide figures for the 1988-89 school year placed the average cost per student in bilingual programs higher than those in regular classes, he said.

For example, the state figures show the Lawrence system spent $ 3,981 per student in regular classes during the 1988-89 year, but spent only $ 2,986 per student in its bilingual program.

Statewide, costs averaged $ 3,894 per student in regular education and $ 4,278 for students in bilingual programs. Boston’s costs were $ 4,641 in regular programs and $ 5,759 for bilingual education.

“Lawrence is spending substantially less,” Glenn said. “It does give you a real sense of why people are upset.”

Lawrence officials disputed the state figures, saying they do not accurately show city expenses for bilingual students. But several residents said the problems are obvious regardless of how figures are interpreted.

Eduardo Crespo, who came here from Ecuador in 1966 and graduated from Lawrence High in 1968, said the school system failures stem from the city’s reluctance to welcome Hispanics.

“The city has not responded to the demanding needs and the growing needs of this community,” said Crespo, president of an advertising firm and director of the Greater Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. “We have experienced sporadic responses.”

Crespo and Marcos J. Devers, a native of the Dominican Republic who came to Lawrence in 1987 after living in Puerto Rico, agreed the city is in a slow transition stage. Progress will require increased sensitivity to Hispanics, they said.

Both men, who have children in the system, are confident improvements will come through local efforts such as the Business-Education Collaborative, initiated in the early 1980s to enhance the quality of education.

“The idea is to speed that progress up by mutual understanding and open-minded attitude toward a better education,” said Devers, a consulting engineer and contractor. “We realize there is a crisis and we have to do the best we can to improve the system.”

Comments are closed.