Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker praised an innovative approach to improving underperforming urban schools during a visit today to a Springfield school.
A panel of teachers and administrators who are participating in the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership told Baker the model adopted at each of the city’s middle schools has worked well, with student test scores trending up and parents giving it high marks as the program nears the end of its second academic year.
During the roughly 30-minute long roundtable in the library of the Forest Park Middle School, Baker and Massachusetts Education Secretary James Peyser asked several questions about the mechanics of the program where the educators in each school are given autonomy over curriculum, budgets, scheduling, professional development, and the school calendar.
" I just want to say congratulations to you all, and I am going to come back next year and we are going to pay a lot of attention to what you are up to," the governor said at the conclusion of the briefing.
Baker’s visit Tuesday was the second time he’s gone to a Springfield Empowerment Zone school for a briefing. He gave a shout-out to the program during his State of Commonwealth address this year.
" As I listen to those teachers it is pretty clear to me they really feel invested in this and that is a big part in how you get success," said Baker speaking with reporters.
Democratic Senator Eric Lesser has co-sponsored a bill that would give school districts in the state an option to create “Innovation Zones” that are similar to what Springfield did.
" It is something we should seriously consider, said Baker when asked if he endorsed the legislation.
The Republican governor is big supporter of charter schools, but voters last November overwhelmingly rejected lifting the cap on charter schools in Massachusetts.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said the Empowerment Zone program combines the best elements of the charter school and traditional public school models.
" This Springfield model -- and I am going to be speaking with other mayors in the eastern part of the state next week-- can work if it is done on the Springfield model," Sarno said.
The Empowerment Zone schools are overseen by an appointed board made up of representatives from the city of Springfield and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The board is chaired by Chris Gabrielli, who heads Empower Schools, a nonprofit education consultant.
When Springfield’s middle schools made the move to become Empowerment Zone participants the schools were ranked as Level 4, the lowest performing on the state’s evaluation scale.
Forest Park Middle School Principal Tom Mazza said he’s confident that when the results are tabulated from this spring’s round of standardized tests the school will be a candidate to exit Level 4.
" We are really excited to hopefully hear from the ( state education ) commissioner in October to let us know that the Forest Park Middle School is the first Empowerment Zone school to exit Level 4," said Mazza.
Part of the curriculum at the school is an additional 10 hours per week of math and reading instruction.
The school has also added a popular elective course on the law, according to Mazza.