Lane Turner/Globe Staff
SPRINGFIELD — There was no finger-pointing here two years ago when state education officials threatened to take over three chronically low-achieving middle schools. Administrators and teachers knew students were not well served and the schools needed to change.
But the mayor, superintendent, and the teachers union president did not welcome receivership. Instead, working with state officials, they crafted a first-of-its-kind plan for a Massachusetts school system that spun off the middle schools into what effectively is their own miniature school system.
Now that effort, the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership , is gaining attention from state leaders and local educators across Massachusetts as a fresh way to potentially turn around the most persistently failing schools.
Momentum to take the initiative statewide received a big boost when Governor Charlie Baker said in his state of the Commonwealth speech last month he would work with legislators who are pushing a bill that would help more school systems create empowerment zones.
“These zones . . . allow educators to make the changes necessary to provide a better learning environment for our kids,” Baker said during the speech.
By freeing up the schools from the central office bureaucracy and most teacher contract provisions, local and state officials say, the Springfield middle schools are in complete control of their curriculums, staffing, budgeting, and ultimately their own destinies.
The empowerment zone, which is in its second year, has grown to include nine middle schools and next fall will add a long-struggling high school. The effort is overseen by a seven-member governing board jointly appointed by local and state officials. Principals report directly to the board.
“It’s a sea change,” said Timothy Collins, president of the Springfield Education Association, the local teachers union. “By having a culture of change where the critical mass of people feel they have a voice in what is being done and ownership in the plan, the likelihood of implementing the plan with fidelity goes up dramatically.”
But a turnaround could take years to achieve. Test scores at the zone’s highest-performing middle school are in the bottom 9th percentile statewide, meaning more than 90 percent of other similar schools scored better. The worst-performing school is in the bottom 1st percentile.
A Globe review of state monitoring reports shows the schools built generally positive climates during the last school year, receiving mid- to high-range marks for student behavior. The reports also indicated that students were typically engaged in class, while the quality of instruction and academic interventions received mostly mid-range marks.
While local and state officials acknowledge it is too soon to declare success, they are encouraged that test results are creeping up.
“Folks are engaged in the right kinds of reforms and practices in the turnaround effort, but for me the proof will be in the pudding,” said Mitchell Chester, state commissioner for elementary and secondary education.
Buzz about the empowerment zone has been growing since voters in November rejected a ballot question that would have accelerated the expansion of charter schools statewide. Policy makers have long held up charter schools as providing what they consider to be better educational opportunities than low-performing district schools.
But many urban districts are approaching state limits on charter-school enrollment, leaving policy makers to look for other options, such as Springfield’s empowerment zone, where schools operate with autonomies similar to those at charters.
The New Bedford public school system has been the most vocal about possibly replicating Springfield’s model as one of several ways to overhaul its three middle schools. Superintendent Pia Durkin said proposals should be ready by next month. She said it won’t be an easy decision.
“No one in the state has a magic formula for middle schools,” said Durkin, noting students at that time in their lives go through extraordinary physical and emotional changes and contend with more difficult coursework.
As with charter schools, debate over expanding empowerment zones to other districts is raising concerns from critics about privatizing public education. In Springfield’s empowerment zone, an education nonprofit is assisting with oversight.
That kind of arrangement is a sticking point in New Bedford — along with potentially transferring oversight of schools to an appointed governing board.
“We don’t need outsiders telling us what to do,” said Lou St. John, president of the New Bedford Educators Association. “We already have our own experts.”
St. John said the union and administrators have worked collaboratively on other school turnaround efforts, such as extending the school day, and they believe common ground can be found on middle schools without creating a special zone.
While a 2010 law paved the way for empowerment zones, questions persist over whether school systems have the authority to create separate governing boards for them if none of the schools are on the brink of receivership. Legislation filed on Beacon Hill would make it clear the boards can exist.
Innovation zones — as the model is more commonly known — have been catching on nationwide. Initial research indicates the zones could prove to be more effective in turning around schools than receivership.
A study by Vanderbilt University in 2015 found innovation zones in Chattanooga, Memphis, and Nashville scored significantly higher on state tests than schools taken over by Tennessee.
The findings perplexed researchers because schools in innovation zones and receivership operate with similar autonomies. Ron Zimmer, a co-author who now works at the University of Kentucky, said one possible theory is that the innovation zones may have attracted more higher-quality teachers by offering bigger salaries.
In Massachusetts, innovation zones have been pushed heavily by a Boston nonprofit, Empower Schools, run by Chris Gabrieli. He pitched the idea to Springfield officials two years ago when the three middle schools were under threat of receivership.
The idea could have easily gone nowhere. Gabrieli was the latest in a long line of experts from Eastern Massachusetts swooping into the city promising the “next new thing” to save their schools. And it came on the heels of a disappointing partnership with a Harvard University research institute that led the state to renew calls for receivership.
But Gabrieli was a well-known figure in Springfield. A decade earlier, he chaired the fiscal control board the state established for the city and later worked on an extended school-day initiative there.
“I knew from my time before in Springfield, one of the great assets there were the people who dug in for a long period of adversity and who were deeply rooted in the community and could have gone elsewhere but they didn’t,” he said.
“There is a great spirit in Springfield of how can we make the most of this situation.”
He found that mentality still existed among local leaders.
“I saw this as a great opportunity,” said Daniel Warwick, Springfield superintendent.
“This offered a much broader array of school flexibilities and, quite frankly, financial support to lead us to believe we could turn these schools around.”
Such enthusiasm pleased Chester, who had been wanting a district to try an innovation zone.
Gabrieli, at the urging of local officials, became chairman of the zone’s governing board, which also includes the mayor and superintendent. Gabrieli’s nonprofit is providing monitoring and expertise to the zone free of charge.
Students at the middle schools tend to come from impoverished households and many have learning disabilities or don’t speak English fluently.
This fall the zone, in an effort to provide sixth-graders with more academic rigor and character development, opened a new program, Impact Prep, at Chestnut South Middle School, located in a swath of the city sandwiched by Interstate 91 and the Connecticut River.
On a recent visit, several students wearing Impact Prep’s uniform of bright yellow polo shirts said they liked the emphasis on hands-on learning, such as building volcanoes in science class, and the focus on discipline.
But the students said teachers and administrators are compassionate, too.
“They always give us multiple chances to change our behavior,” said Carolyn Torres, 12.
Principal Nathaniel Higgins said he has been raising academic expectations. He proudly pointed to a bulletin board that showed students had read 20 million words and 900 books so far this year — almost halfway to their goal of 58 million words.
“I’m pushing for a private school feel,” he said.
Nicole Chinn, a parent, said she initially worried about her daughter attending the school. She pulled Higgins aside during a parent meet-and-greet before the year began and showed him her daughter’s report card from the previous year, when she failed all her classes. Higgins assured her this year would be different.
“She is getting the help she needs,” said Chinn, noting her daughter has developed a love for reading.
Across the city, administrators and teachers have the big task of overhauling Kiley Middle School, one of Springfield’s largest middle schools, with 700 students.
The school has adopted new English and math curriculums and has extended periods to 90 minutes to encourage more hands-on learning.
“Change was needed,” said Cheri Drapeau, a seventh-grade social studies teacher. “What we were doing wasn’t work-ing.”
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