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District Reform, Community Effort

Meet the winner and finalist of the 2017 Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership, honoring alumni whose work has led to transformational change in the past year.

By The TFA Editorial Team

September 6, 2017

This year's Peter Jennings Award finalists share an unshakable belief that district-level educational change will not succeed unless everyone in the community—families, teachers, politicians, school leaders—rallies behind solutions. The award is named for the late journalist who, for 22 years, anchored ABC World News Tonight. In the words of Kayce Freed Jennings, her late husband “believed in the power of people stepping up and stepping in to lead in places and times of uncertainty” in service to “a better and more just education system and a country where the American dream really can be a reality for everyone.”

Winner: Jeff Riley (Baltimore ’93), Superintendent, Lawrence Public Schools (Massachusetts)

When the Massachusetts commissioner of education put Jeff Riley in charge of the struggling Lawrence Public Schools in early 2012, he gave Riley broad power to reconstitute schools, unilaterally alter or suspend teacher contracts, and fire teachers en masse. Riley did none of those. “Some of the more aggressive approaches just didn’t seem to fit into my philosophy, which is, ‘We’ve got to do this together,’” Riley says. Working with his teachers, principals, families, and the community, Riley has laid the groundwork in Lawrence for an extraordinary turnaround.


Lawrence Public Schools by the Numbers: 

  • 14,000 students 
  • 92 percent of students identify as Latino 
  • 31 percent of students are English-language learners 
  • 65 percent of students come from low-income backgrounds 


Results Under Riley’s Leadership: 

  • The graduation rate has jumped 19 percentage points to more than 71 percent. 
  • The dropout rate fell by more than half to just over 4 percent. 
  • Almost half of all students are proficient in math, up 21 percentage points since 2012. Just over half of all students are proficient in English Language Arts, up 10 percentage points. 
  • 460 Latino staff members work in the predominantly Latino district, up from 330 in 2011. The schools now have twice as many employees who are Lawrence residents, with 755. 



  • When Riley took charge of the district, he retained 90 percent of teachers. “The answers are among the teachers,” he says. But he cut the central office staff by one-third, freeing up funds to extend the school day and year and to offer more student-centric programming. 
  • Riley embraces an “open-architecture” district model that allows traditional and charter schools to exist under one umbrella. He de-emphasizes central control and emphasizes principal autonomy, including school-level budgeting to reflect each school’s individual needs.


Big Ideas:

  • Know your community: Early on, Riley held a “speed dating” event for principals to meet representatives from local nonprofits like the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence. The matchmaking worked, resulting in thousands of students utilizing community resources for enrichments like arts and athletics. 
  • Support your parents: Riley spurred the creation of a family resource center designed as a one-stop shop for parents to tackle issues that might affect their child’s education. The resource center brings together local agencies to assist parents with housing, employment, and health care. 
  • Value your teachers: Riley has continued the Sontag Prize in Urban Education, which he launched in Boston, as superintendent in Lawrence. It recognizes outstanding teachers with a financial reward and a weekend of professional development in exchange for teaching at one-week “acceleration academies” during school breaks.

Finalist: Paymon Rouhanifard (N.Y. ’03), Superintendent, Camden City School District (New Jersey)

Paymon Rouhanifard once believed that politics often worked against students. But upon taking over the state-controlled Camden City School District (CCSD) in 2013, he met elected officials who cared deeply for kids and families. So instead of forcing reforms, he listened to them and refined his strategies. He earned community buy-in for one of his most ambitious ideas—the creation and expansion of neighborhood “renaissance schools” operated by high-performing charter networks. The approach is paying off, Rouhanifard says. Achievement rates are rising, suspensions are declining, and the district has invested $325 million in capital improvements. “As we head in to year five,” he adds, “we have the support of nearly every political official in the city and region.”


Camden City School District by the Numbers: 

  • 6,500 students attend CCSD’s 18 traditional schools. 
  • 3,950 students attend the district’s 11 renaissance schools run by charter networks KIPPMastery Schools, and Uncommon Schools.
  • Just over half of district students are Latino. Just under half are African American. 
  • More than 95 percent of students come from low-income backgrounds. 


Results Under Rouhanifard’s Leadership: 

  • 70 percent of students graduated in four years in 2016, a 21 percent increase from 2012.  
  • Dropouts are down significantly. In 2012, 21 percent of students dropped out. In 2016, 12 percent did. 
  • Within the district's direct-run schools, proficiency rates have steadily risen from 2015 to 2017 for kids in grades 3-8, improving by 4.5 percent in math and 6.0 percent in ELA.
  • The district’s renaissance schools have seen dramatic gains since opening in 2014. At the schools run by Uncommon, math proficiency has risen to 17 percent, up from 3 percent. ELA proficiency has jumped to 27 percent, also up from 3 percent.


Big Ideas:   

  • Smart discipline: Rouhanifard saw 10-day suspensions for ambiguous issues like “disrespect” being handed out far too frequently. He oversaw major changes to disciplinary practices, resulting in a 53 percent drop in student suspensions between 2015-16 and 2016-17 and a 70 percent reduction in the number of school days lost to suspension. 
  • Safe and sound: Rouhanifard addressed urgent family concerns by working with police to ensure students could travel safely to and from school and implemented a trauma-informed home visit program aimed at students at risk of dropping out. About 200 students received visits during the 2016-17 school year, up from 13 the year prior. 
  • Empowered parents: Under Rouhanifard’s leadership, Camden overhauled its student enrollment. Parents now choose between all school options, including charter and renaissance schools, in one process.

About the Author


Teach For America's editorial team includes staff writers who are dedicated to bringing you the most engaging education stories from the TFA community and beyond.