Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, who is a strong advocate for more charter schools, recently visited a charter school-like program operated by a public-private partnership in Springfield.
The middle schools in Springfield began a dramatic transformation just about a year ago in a bid to lift the schools out of the bottom academic rung and avert a likely state takeover. The schools were placed under the control of a board with representatives appointed by the city, the state education department, and Empower Schools, a private education company.
The middle schools were reorganized into academies, each with 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, and principals were given autonomy to experiment.
Springfield Superintendent of Schools Dan Warwick said the approach mirrors turnaround plans that have worked at struggling schools in other cities.
" It is an exciting opportunity to try some things very different," said Warwick. " We are going to keep a tight eye on results to make sure things are going the right way for our kids."
One of the schools operating in what is now called the Springfield Empowerment Zone is the former Duggan Middle School, now the Duggan Academy. It is transitioning to a grade 6-12 magnet school for social justice with plans 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.
" The goal of the Zone is not to say everything old is bad and everything new is good, but lets be willing to be very bold when that is needed," said Gabrieli.
Gov. Baker visited a math and an English classroom at Duggan, and then held a roundtable discussion with school officials, Empowerment Zone board members, and other local education advocates.
" They have a bunch of process stuff they are very happy with, but even they said we should come back next year to see how the outcome stuff looks," said Baker.
Baker said it is obviously too early to judge if the Empowerment Zone model is a success or failure, but he described the approach to education he witnessed at Duggan as “really good stuff.”
" I just want good schools, I don't much care about the operating model, but I think the charter school movement has proven over and over again that they work and work in urban communities," said Baker.
Baker has filed a bill with the legislature that would lift the existing cap on charter schools. He has also endorsed efforts by an advocacy group promoting a ballot question that would authorize up to 12 new charter schools a year in Massachusetts.