Engaged Families and Communities

Building Achievement Through Collaboration in Springfield, Mass.

In order for a boat to move, everyone must row in the same direction. The same is true for transforming historically lower-performing priority schools – in order to close achievement gaps and engender permanent academic improvement, teachers, support staff, administrators and community members must all share a common vision and sense of purpose. Otherwise, the boat isn’t going anywhere.

That was a lesson learned in Springfield, Mass., where educators and administrators decided to put aside years of mutual distrust and, with the help of the National Education Association and its affiliates, develop a shared vision for improving Springfield’s schools.

Springfield, located in central Massachusetts, is a city known around the world. It is, after all, the place where YMCA instructor James Naismith invented basketball in 1891. And once a year, basketball superstars and millionaires flock to Springfield to induct a new class into Springfield’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

But the millionaires don’t stay. Springfield is a lower-income community where the median household income is little more than half the state average. The city has struggled with a variety of social issues ranging from poverty to crime to high unemployment. At several Springfield schools, nearly all students receive free or reduced-price lunch.

So long after the sports heroes have boarded their private planes and left the city, the students at Springfield’s public schools are counting on a crop of everyday heroes – their teachers, support staff and administrators – to give them the tools they will need to fulfill their potential.

But for years, distrust and disrespect among education stakeholders was standing in the way of the important and necessary work that must be done to improve Springfield schools.

A multi-year contract struggle between the Springfield Education Association (SEA) and the district administration, as well as four years of wage freezes and a state-mandated rewrite of the district’s collective bargaining agreement, created an environment of disrespect and mistrust.

During this time, the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, an independent organization focused on education reform in Massachusetts, invited SEA and Springfield Public Schools to participate in a joint labor-management committee. The sides worked together on a shared definition of a successful public school, and began having meaningful discussions on how to implement the vision together.

Once they were able to define success, the committee sought to measure where each Springfield school was on the Successful School Continuum. For that effort, Springfield schools turned to NEA’s Keys to Excellence for Your Schools (KEYS) program.

KEYS is a comprehensive, research-based, data-driven program for continuous school improvement. Developed by NEA, it is the product of a 15-year collaborative effort involving educators, school district administrators, parents, and business and community leaders.

With assistance and support of the Massachusetts Teachers Association’s Center for Educational Policy and Practice (CEPP), a survey produced by the NEA KEYS program was conducted and received an 80% return rate from building administrators and educators.

Then, through CEPP staff facilitation, an expanded committee of educators and administrators worked together to analyze and interpret the data. The process built trust, respect and a shared vision of what it was going to take to help ensure all Springfield schools are successful.

When the analysis was completed, the KEYS Steering Committee rolled out the findings to a larger audience of building administrators, teacher leaders and union reps. The purpose was to model joint labor-management collaboration and to solicit input at the building level.

Now, there is a new sense of trust and collaboration among the education stakeholders in Springfield. There is still much hard work to be done as educators and administrators implement the criteria they established for building successful public schools. In fact, Springfield Public Schools this year received a $1.2 million, five-year grant from the NEA Foundation to help improve priority schools across Springfield. The grant was written collaboratively by SEA and district administrators.

Some schools, such as Kennedy Middle School, are already reporting progress, having improved attendance rates and state test scores while lowering school suspensions.

It’s the type of progress that is possible when everyone is rowing in the same direction. The boat can move.

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