A report issued late last month by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education gave a scathing warning to the Haverhill Public School System: Either shape up or face the state's intervention.
School officials and teachers, however, said they've already begun making corrections and should be on the right in track for the foreseeable future.
"Education is an evolving profession," interim Superintendent James Scully said. "We're dealing with human beings who learn at different rates. Most of our people work hard and most of our parents care."
The report, titled "Haverhill Public Schools Level Three District Review," details several critical deficiencies district-wide in instruction, staffing and organization.
The study was conducted during a visit to the district from May 3 to May 6. The report says the six state staffers spoke with parents, teachers, the administration of former Haverhill Superintendent Raleigh Buchanan, School Committee members and several city employees. The state deemed closer inspection of the district necessary after Haverhill schools failed to make progress for the third year in MCAS scores among certain groups of students.
School districts are classified at "level 3" status if they place among the lowest 20 percent of schools throughout the state in MCAS scores. If a district fails to make progress towards MCAS goals for four years running or places among the lowest 10 percent of the state, it faces a level 4 classification and state intervention.
State investigators found that Haverhill people interviewed complained of "dysfunctional" School Committee meetings, inefficient and overburdened administrators, curriculum plans ignored by educators and lackluster teacher assessments.
Scully said the report does make valid points about the district's failings, but added that since he has taken over as superintendent, most of these failings have either been addressed directly or will continue to improve in time.
"Parents trust us with their children for six hours a day," he said. "Sincerely, we're doing our best."
One of the most often repeated complaints in the report cited the lack of a formal districtwide vision and plan. But on Aug. 18, just one month after Scully's appointment as interim superintendent, the administration issued its "2010-2012 District Improvement Plan" through the district's website. The plan outlines new methods of professional teacher development, amplified monitoring of student progress and a number of proposals for managing the school's shrinking budget.
Marc Harvey, a history teacher at Haverhill High School and the president of the Haverhill Educators Association, the teachers union, said fixing the district problems will take time and an active investment by Haverhill teachers.
"There needs to be some change," Harvey said. "You can't run from data. Everyone has to take ownership of those failures."
Fortunately, Harvey said, political factors that can influence the quality of a classroom have started dissipating in the last few months.
Harvey feels that since last year's School Committee election, which brought attorney Paul Magliocchetti and retired Tilton School Principal Raymond Sierpina onto the committee.
"The committee has dramatically improved," Harvey said. "They now talk about education."
Harvey said Scully's time as interim superintendent has introduced a "paradigm shift" teachers' morale and actions.
"One of the things Jim (Scully) is attempting to do, to his credit, is create a unified school system," Harvey said. "If he can accomplish that lofty goal, we all benefit. The goal for us in the next year or two is to make sure the system operates whether or not someone is at the top."
The state report does acknowledge several challenges facing the district which justify its poor results such as Haverhill's socioeconomic climate, with more than 40 percent of the district's population considered "low-income" by the state, and a large number of educationally challenged students, such as the 20 percent enrolled in special education programs and the 15 percent who do not speak English as their primary language.
Harvey said focusing on the ways Haverhill has trouble reaching their subgroups ignores the larger picture of successful Haverhill students working towards their future, such as the 23 Advance Placement classes at Haverhill High School.
"We tend to paint things in black or white terms," he said. "It's tragic when people say things are a failure."
Harvey said he and all Haverhill educators are focusing on the goal of becoming a top urban school district in the state.