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New England News

More Time And Data Needed To Assess School Turnaround Initiative

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Officials say good progress was made during the first year of an initiative to turn around the struggling middle schools in the second largest public school system in Massachusetts.  The nine middle schools in Springfield are operated by a public-private partnership in a model that more closely resembles what a lot of charter schools do.

The hard data in the form of students’ scores on standardized tests won’t be known until the fall, but school officials say other measures point to improvements at the middle schools that a few years ago were near the bottom of the state’s five-level scale of academic performance and faced a likely state takeover.

The schools are operated by the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership, which is under the direction of a board with representatives appointed by the city, the state education department, and a private education company. 

The city’s middle schools were reorganized so each would have no more than 300 students to allow for smaller class sizes. The Springfield teachers union agreed to a new contract that would allow for longer school days. Principals were given autonomy to experiment.

Springfield Superintendent of Schools Dan Warwick said  the approach mirrors turnaround plans that have worked in struggling schools in other cities.

"It is an exciting opportunity to do something very different. But we are going to keep a tight eye on results to make sure things are going in the right direction for our kids," said Warwick.

The Empowerment Zone approach is unique in Massachusetts.  Other struggling schools and school districts – the Holyoke Public Schools, for example – have wound up in state receivership.

An example of the changes made at the individual schools is evident at Duggan Academy, the former Duggan Middle School.   It transitioned to a grade 6-12 magnet school for social justice to attract students interested in careers in advocacy, education, or criminal justice.

Empowerment Zone Chairman Chris Gabrieli said Duggan Principal Michael Calvanese, a former charter school principal, has extended the school day by an hour, built in more time for math and English, and introduced software-based tools to help students learn.

" The goal of the ( Empowerment Zone) is not to say everything old is bad and everything new is good, but lets be very bold where bolder is needed," said Gabrieli.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker was given a briefing on the Empowerment Zone concept during a visit to the Duggan school. 

" They have a bunch of process stuff they are very happy about, but we have to see how the actual outcome stuff looks," said Baker

Baker described the approach to education by the Empowerment Zone as “really good stuff.”

" I just want good schools. I don't care about the operating model," said Baker. " I do think the charter school movement has proven over and over again, and parents buy into it, and the scores support it, that they work."

Baker is a strong advocate for charter schools. He has endorsed the efforts by an advocacy group that is campaigning to pass a referendum on the November ballot in Massachusetts would allow up to a dozen new charter schools a year above the current cap.  Preference for the additional charter school seats would go to academically struggling school systems.

The most recent report this month from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found there are 32,646 students on charter school waiting lists.  That is down about 1,500 from the charter school waiting list report issued in February by the state education department.

Boston and Springfield have the highest number of children on charter school wait lists.

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