Professional Educators

‘This was an opportunity to put innovation on steroids’

Somerville Teachers Association President Jackie Lawrence visited the Winter Hill Innovation school, where she spent time in a classroom with Principal Chad Mazza. Photo by Laura Barrett

By Laura Barrett, Massachusetts Teachers Association

Amanda Bell, a teacher at the Winter Hill Innovation School in Somerville, said staff members had to decide quickly if they wanted to convert to a new educational model.

“Prior to Tony coming to us,” she said, referring to Superintendent Anthony Pierantozzi, “I don’t think any of us had heard of Innovation Schools. It was quite interesting at our first meeting hearing he wanted us to do it and if we agreed then we had to make a decision very quickly because there was a grant available.

“We all came together and realized we have a great school,” Bell continued. “We know what we’re doing. We have fantastic people here and we know what works. So it was sort of like, ‘Aha, here’s a chance to get to do what we want to do.’”

Add to the mix that a new principal, Chad Mazza, had just been hired as implementation was beginning.

“I jumped on a moving cart,” said Mazza. “This is a unique staff,” he added. “I could see right from the start that they work well together. I could tell this could work at this school.”

Mary McGivern, an inclusion specialist, said the school is filled with strong and open-minded educators. “There were a lot of innovative things happening here already, but some of them were in their infancy and had not been realized to their full potential,” she said.

“This was an opportunity to put innovation on steroids,” added Jackie Lawrence, president of the Somerville Teachers Association.

Teachers interviewed by MTA Today agreed that putting a plan together quickly is not ideal. To slow it down a little, they are implementing the changes in phases. As part of the planning, it was important for parents to be in the mix.

Bell explained, “We had a meeting with parents to ask, ‘If you could have anything at your school, what would you want to see?’”

The teachers also put up a “parking lot” chart on which staff members could post their ideas, questions and concerns. Several priorities emerged, and plans were put together by the governing board. Each component was voted on by the staff, with nearly unanimous approval for the final plan.

One change seeks to improve students’ “social competency” through adopting the Responsive Classroom approach, a program that involves the whole staff in promoting appropriate social interactions.

Bell allowed a visitor to spend time in her classroom of third- and fourth-graders during “morning meeting,” a daily feature of the Responsive Classroom. On that December day, students took turns being in the center of a circle and everyone was told to observe them. The chosen student then hid and made a change in his or her appearance. One boy put his shoes on the wrong feet. Nine-year-old Shellby Duval removed the hair tie that had been around her wrist and was pleased that no one could identify what had changed.

Shellby said she loves morning meetings. “We have fun and play little games and tell our friends what we did over the weekends and things like that,” she said.

In this particular exercise, the students were also honing their observation skills and modeling taking turns. Morning meeting is also a time the teacher can observe whether a student seems troubled and may need some extra attention.

“It’s important for students to build social skills so they can interact well with each other and the staff,” Bell said. “Self-regulation is so important.”

The innovation plan also calls for more common planning time — carved out of the existing schedule — and staff-driven professional development. The school is also introducing a therapy dog program for special needs students.

Winter Hill is typical of an urban school. Among its students, 84 percent are low-income, three quarters
are of color, 20 percent are English language learners and 27 percent have special needs. MCAS scores are below the state average.

The school also houses a large Sheltered English Immersion program that draws students from across the district. Although this program no doubt affects the school’s MCAS scores, Mazza urged the district to provide T passes to middle-schoolers who no longer qualify for busing so that they can remain at Winter Hill, where they have made significant progress.

In the end, the teachers agreed the Innovation School process is not just about raising test scores, though they hope that happens. Mostly, they want their school to be a welcoming community that addresses both the learning and social-emotional needs of their students. Lawrence, the local president, noted that Somerville has had a number of innovative programs for years. She believes this model is different.

“Somerville has always been innovative, but the innovation has not always been teacher-owned,” she said. “When this process is done right, it is teacher-owned. Teachers have a voice in every step of the process.”

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