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‘Empowerment Zone’ offers hope to failing schools

A third K12 approach: Neither a typical district school nor a charter school

Six Springfield, Massachusetts, middle schools, flagged as close to failing by the state two years ago, seized an unusual opportunity to run themselves.

Now they form the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership, an entity that’s still part of the Springfield Public Schools but which functions with more autonomy than the district’s other schools.

The program was developed by the district, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the Springfield Education Association teachers’ union.

Not a charter, not a typical school

The Empowerment Zone is neither a typical district school nor a charter school. It provides a third approach by keeping elements of the district structure, such as neighborhood school assignments, unionized faculty and a board with a local voice.

And while charter schools generally require students to apply, middle school students who live in the Empowerment Zone can just enroll. But like charters, individualized school teams have more flexibility to run their own schools.

Each of the nine Empowerment Zone schools (the original six middle schools were turned into nine) has a principal and a teacher leadership team, each elected by their school peers.

Each also sets its own curriculum, manages staff and runs its budget, which can range from $2 million to $6.5 million for the middle schools, and more than $10 million for a high school joining the zone next fall.

The model for academic growth is focused on increases in English language arts (ELA) and math scores. “My biggest priority is to deliver results for students and show this model can work,” says Julie Swerdlow Albino, co-executive director for the zone’s strategy and systems.

The schools showed slight gains in proficiency in ELA and math after their first full school year in 2015-16.

ELA composite performance index scores rose from 68 in the 2014-15 school year to 70 in 2015-16, where a score of 100 means all students are proficient. Math scores also increased from 51 to 53.

Teachers in the Empowerment Zone are paid by the district, with salaries negotiated by the union and higher than those in the rest of the district, says union president Tim Collins.

The schools report to a nonprofit board, comprising three local members (including Superintendent Daniel Warwick and Mayor Domenic Sarno) and four state appointees. The board’s chair is Chris Gabrieli, CEO of Empower Schools Inc., a nonprofit group that is facilitating the program.

National appeal

The Massachusetts legislature is eyeing Springfield as a prototype for other struggling schools across the state. New Bedford Public Schools may create its own empowerment zone, says Jackie Reis, spokesperson for the state education department.

Empower Schools is also working with Denver Public Schools to launch a similar program in the 2017-18 school year.

For more, see the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership.