In Revere, in a brightly lit first-grade classroom at Paul Revere Elementary School, six groups of 6-year-olds are spread out. Some sit with their teacher, Erin London, while most of the others are settled in at desks and discuss questions from their assignment books. A couple of boys lie on a mat while a few others sit at a computer bank and do their work with a keyboard and a mouse.
“What are some other nocturnal animals?’’ London asks the group at the little table where they’re sitting. “Think of some animals that are only out at night and sleep during the day.’’
“Raccoons?’’ asks Christopher Celona.
“Yes,’’ says London, offering Celona a quick smile before returning to the book.
Since the Paul Revere became the first innovation school in Massachusetts more than a year ago, educators from across the state have made it one of their first stops as they try to find a better way to teach and prepare students to enter society. The schools were created by Governor Deval Patrick two years ago to give educators flexibility inside the classroom. Similar to charter schools, the innovation schools are allowed to set their own curriculum, schedule, and calendar, and choose their own staff.
While the schools are still funded by their home districts, policies are set by a governing board - staffed by educators, administrators, and parents. Schools also can raise money for programming, take on corporate partners and create educational collaboratives, and set their own budgets. The program requires approval from the district School Committee and the school’s teachers’ union. There are 18 innovation schools in the state, and in February, Patrick announced $281,000 in planning grants to 29 schools that want to attain innovation status. Five of the planned schools are in Gloucester, Haverhill, Lynn, Malden, and Somerville.
“Innovation schools provide educators with a new option to build supportive schools that ensure students reach high standards and expectations,’’ Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said in a prepared statement.
As charter schools have spread throughout the state - and focused on changing everything from traditional curriculum to the hours students spend in school every day to boost academic achievement - some urban public schools have faced increased pressure to change the way they teach. Many district superintendents, such as Revere’s Paul Dakin, say innovation schools allow for a better learning environment for teachers and students.
“I think the best thing about the school is the renewed enthusiasm and the empowerment of my teachers,’’ said Dakin.
At the Paul Revere school, teachers helped craft the curriculum, restructured their schedules to allow for an extra eight hours of extracurricular activities a week while remaining within the guidelines of the union work week, and have introduced an Open Circle time in the classroom. The 15-minute circle is held twice a week, and allows children to discuss personal and family issues with the rest of their classmates and teachers. Since being introduced last year, four other Revere schools have begun the Open Circle.
“It’s a safe place for them to say what they need and have us help them work through it,’’ explained Terry Incereto, who has taught at the Paul Revere school for 17 years and described the innovation school as “morale-boosting’’ for the teachers.
In just one year, the school has also seen success with MCAS scores. Last year, it outperformed the state average on six of the seven tests.
Last month, Patrick came to Malden’s Linden School, which is planning to focus on math and sciences when it becomes an innovation school. In Somerville, Superintendent Tony Pierantozzi hopes to transform the Winter Hill Community School into a K-8 innovation school this September. In 2011, the Winter Hill school lagged behind the state average in every grade and also had higher warning/failing rates in all grades compared with the rest of the state.
“Our commitment to providing every student in our school district with the support and structure to succeed both academically and in the real world is a charge that we take very seriously,’’ said Pierantozzi. “While we have seen incremental improvements in many areas, we understand that incremental change may not be enough. We must be willing to move beyond the boundaries of what we know, and explore opportunities that might lead to exponential growth. The Innovation Schools initiative provides exactly that type of opportunity.’’
In Salem, the Carlton Elementary School has been preparing its teachers all year for the transition to an innovation school, which will begin in September. Carlton principal Jean-Marie Kahn said the autonomies allowed within the innovation system will change the look and feel of the classroom. When the next school year begins, Carlton students will be grouped with older students: with grades 1-2 and 4-5 combined. In addition, the school calendar will be divided by trimester, and if they’re academically prepared, students will be promoted to the next grade during the school year. Also, students will spend two years with a teacher in order to create a stronger learning bond between teacher and student.
“I think it’s a much more logical approach to educating kids than what we’re doing now,’’ said Kahn. “We have these artificial structures in place. We have grade levels and a calendar that states that every 5-year-old is going to start in the grade in September and end in June. We assume that they’re all going to go at the same rate. If we have more freedom to individualize instruction, then I think we’ll be a lot more effective.’’
Lynn Superintendent Catherine Latham said the decision to transform the Washington school into an innovation school was based on increased district elementary enrollment and the desire to begin preparing kids for college in kindergarten. Latham said the school would focus on science, technology, engineering, and math when it opens in September. She plans to outfit kindergarten classrooms and sandboxes with building blocks and child-safe beakers to get kids thinking about math and science. “Every single job in the future that is going to be well-paid is going to focus on math,’’ she said.Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @WriteRosenberg.