More Districts Try Innovation Schools
By Laura Barrett, Massachusetts Teachers Association
There is an ongoing debate in public education about the tension between choice and equity. Are Innovation Schools one way to strike a balance? MTA members and association leaders in some districts believe they are an exciting option, while others have their doubts.
As a way to foster school-based decision-making, innovation and choice within public school districts, Governor Deval Patrick included Innovation Schools in his Achievement Gap Act of 2010. Some argued that creating such schools would reduce pressure to lift the cap on Commonwealth Charter Schools.
Innovation Schools are similar to Horace Mann Charter Schools and to Boston’s Pilot Schools, though there are differences in implementation. Innovation Schools have more flexibility and autonomy than most district schools with regard to curriculum, staffing, budget, scheduling, professional development and district policies.
Staff members at these schools still belong to their local associations and are often very involved in the design and implementation of changes. Some plans require negotiating waivers to the union contract, while others do not.
Two Innovation Schools opened in the 2010-2011 school year and another 16 in 2011-2012. This year there are 44 Innovation Schools across the Commonwealth, and six more are under consideration for 2013-2014.
“Implementing these schools involves a lot of thought and discussion, and it has not always been easy,” said MTA President Paul Toner. “But after talking to members who work in Innovation Schools in several districts, I am convinced that if done in collaboration with teachers and their unions, this model gives our members more of a voice in school improvement and is leading to some exciting new education models.”
Bridget Rodriguez, a former teacher and principal in the Cambridge Public Schools, heads the Innovation Schools program for the state’s Executive Office of Education. She described why she is excited about the concept.
“As a former teacher, I remember when I used to drive home I would often think, ‘If only we could do things this other way,’” Rodriguez said. “Now teachers have a place they can go with their ideas. We think these schools can be an excellent demonstration of teacher professionalism and teacher-initiated reform. There’s no lack of good ideas. To me, teachers are the people who know the school population intimately and can custom-tailor solutions to the kids in front of them.”
Innovation School plans may be proposed by teachers, unions, district administrators, community residents or other interested parties. Applicants may seek a planning grant from the state. The local school committee must approve the plan before it can move forward, and the district oversees the school as it would any other district school. Innovation Schools are supposed to receive the same per-pupil allotment as other schools, although — like any school — they can apply for grant money.
Innovation Schools must develop Measurable Annual Goals, and local school committees are responsible for holding them accountable for meeting those goals. The state receives copies of their MAG progress reports and is in the process of analyzing results from the second full year that the schools were in operation.
There are two different models: conversion — that is, created by converting an existing school to a new program — and new. About one-third of the conversions take place in Level 3 schools — schools performing in the bottom 20 percent statewide — with the hope that the changes will improve performance and reduce the chance of the school falling into Level 4 status. Level 4 schools are selected from among low-performing Level 3 schools that show little or no improvement.
For new schools, the local association, the applicant and school committee must negotiate any waivers to the contract. Bargaining disputes are resolved through an expedited binding arbitration process. The arbitrator must consider the parties’ positions and the needs of the students in the district.
One concern has been the lack of a clear definition of the difference between the two models. New Bedford Education Association President Lou St. John objected to a plan for two Innovation Schools in his district in part because he believed they were really conversion schools that were being called new in order to get around the two-thirds-vote requirement. An MTA attorney wrote an opinion agreeing that the New Bedford models most closely resemble conversion schools, but state education officials disagreed. The issue has not yet been resolved.
St. John also questions whether it is really possible for Innovation Schools to offer substantially more services — such as art, music, physical education and smaller class sizes — for the district’s average per-pupil expenditure. If it is possible, he asked the school committee in testimony, “Why have you denied these same supports and services that we have been requesting all these years for all our kids and teachers?”
In Worcester, there were concerns about the voting process at Worcester Technical High School. Despite those concerns, Leonard Zalauskas, president of the Educational Association of Worcester, said that Innovation Schools can be “magic” when they work, giving teachers a chance to transform their own schools and generating excitement and creativity among the staff. Worcester has eight Innovation Schools, including a dual-language program, an accelerated magnet program and two that emphasize science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Rodriguez said the schools have adopted a variety of innovations. One uses a co-teaching model for special education inclusion, several focus on STEM subjects and a school in Salem has created a continuous-progress model in which students move up through the system when they have mastered the curriculum, not based on age or traditional grade levels.
Are they successful? Rodriguez said it is too early to say whether Innovation Schools outperform comparable schools on MCAS tests or other measures, but feedback from most teachers and administrators is positive. Few teachers or students typically transfer out when a school converts to the new model.
In Dennis-Yarmouth, three of the district’s seven schools are Innovation Schools, including the Marguerite E. Small School for fourth- and fifth-graders. There, teachers work on a staggered schedule to extend the school day by 50 minutes to provide students with an enrichment block. Students can choose from among 21 different semester-long opportunities, including programs in the arts, fitness, leadership, reading, math, writing, science and technology.
Erin Porter, president of the Dennis-Yarmouth Educators Association, said the program has worked well at that school because “the teachers were very involved in the planning and implementation from the start.”
The Marguerite E. Small School had already established a grant-funded after-school program before the Innovation model was available. The planning grant gave the staff time to figure out how to provide all students with enrichment during a longer school day without requiring teachers to work longer.
Porter said the model isn’t completely revenue-neutral since the district pays some of the teachers a stipend to stay longer for the enrichment block. “But they are getting a big bang for their buck,” she said. “The students and teachers are very happy with the new schedule.”
The experience in the district’s other two Innovation Schools that opened this year has been mixed, Porter said. Teachers are overwhelmed by so many other requirements — including the new evaluation system and Common Core curriculum alignment — that there is little time and energy left over for planning big changes. In addition, the district is in the process of reorganizing and closing one of its school buildings, which is likely to disrupt the implementation process.
“My advice to anyone considering this is not to rush in with major changes too quickly,” she said. “We tried to do too much too fast. If we’d had more planning and more teacher involvement from the beginning, it would have worked better.”
That said, Porter believes the new models are promising. Plans in her preK-3 school include a healthy-lunch program that incorporates local produce from a community garden and a farm-to-plate initiative, a beautification project for which students helped plant hundreds of daffodils and a community service program that involves students “harvesting” pennies on behalf of a charity they get to choose.
“Down here there are a lot of charter schools and school choice districts,” Porter said. “We know we have to do something that’s a little different to appeal to our customer base — the parents. The teachers are working very hard on this and are dedicated. It may be a little too quick, but I think we will succeed.”
Toner said he hopes that expansion of successful Innovation Schools will help convince legislators and the public that they do not have to lift the cap on charter schools to promote new ideas and choice in public education. Systems are already in place for Innovation Schools to share their ideas with other schools that want to replicate their practices. This is something charter schools were supposed to do but have rarely accomplished.
“I believe that MTA members can and should be the architects of reform and not the objects of it. We need to be the ones leading change with our students and communities,” Toner said. “When they are developed with educators, their unions and community members, Innovation Schools can be a very positive experience for teachers and students alike.”