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State helps Pentucket plan for innovations at all its schools

The Pentucket Regional School District is getting support from the state as it gears up to bring new approaches to teaching and learning to all six of its schools.

The Patrick administration recently awarded nine $10,000 grants to help districts plan to create innovation schools, and five of them went to Pentucket, which serves students in Groveland, Merrimac, and West Newbury.

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The funding will help Pentucket prepare five special academies within the district’s schools in the fall that are intended to provide students the opportunity to delve deeper into various subject areas and to allow teachers to employ new instructional techniques.

“It’s very important to us for two reasons,” Pentucket Superintendent Jeffrey Mulqueen said of the $50,000 in combined grant money. “One is the financial benefit of getting the work accomplished. The other is the recognition of the good work our teachers are doing” in planning for the academies.

The state also awarded $494,240 to help 17 established innovation schools — including two in this region — to enhance their programs. The O’Maley Innovation Middle School in Gloucester and the Tilton Innovation School in Haverhill each received $30,000.

A key component of the state’s 2010 education reform law, innovation schools use inventive educational strategies. They can have greater autonomy and flexibility in curriculum, staffing, and other areas, but the funding remains within the public school district. Complete innovation schools or academies — which are schools within a school — are allowed.

There are currently 46 approved innovation schools statewide. In addition to the O’Maley and Tilton schools, those in this region are Linden S.T.E.A.M Innovation School Academy in Malden; the Paul Revere Innovation School i n Revere; Carlton Elementary School in Salem; and Winter Hill Community Innovation School in Somerville.

Bridget Rodriguez, director of planning and collaboration for the state’s Executive Office of Education, said the five grants awarded to Pentucket show that “the district is really thinking about this as a tool to use comprehensively as a part of their strategies for delivering what they feel their students most need.”

Mulqueen, who became Pentucket’s school chief in July 2012, said he got the idea of proposing innovation schools from his experience with eight of the schools in Worcester, where he previously served as deputy superintendent.

“I saw the innovation schools as a great way of generating rapid, accelerated learning, and it’s highly motivating for teachers, for administrators, and for parents. . . . I presented that opportunity here and it caught fire and has generated a lot of positive momentum.”

Pentucket’s plan calls for creating three academies in West Newbury at the secondary level, for students in the seventh grade through high school: Movement Science and Athletics, Arts, and Safety and Public Service.

Two other academies would be created at the elementary level: an International Baccalaureate program serving the Sweetsir and Donaghue schools in Merrimac; and a Design and Engineering focus at the Bagnall school in Groveland and the Page in West Newbury.

The first would bring to the Merrimac schools an established international curriculum “that is very high-powered and grounded in real life experience,” Mulqueen said. The Design and Engineering schools would similarly provide students with a concentrated curriculum and real-life experiences in those subjects. A public hearing will be held in late March or early April, with the School Committee set to consider approval of the plan later in the spring.

Already, the high school — on a pilot basis — is offering courses in the three academy topics. Mulqueen said the ideas for the academies were developed with input from students and faculty.

The intent is to enable students to “specialize in one of the areas and gain some early experience,” he said, noting that could include providing new opportunities for high school students to take college-level courses and for middle school students to take high school credit courses.

For one of the current pilot courses, the district has partnered with the Gnomon School of Visual Effects in Hollywood “to give students an early experience of what to expect in visual arts after graduation,” Mulqueen said. Students creating character sculptures are able to receive feedback from the California school on their works.

For another pilot course for the Public Safety and Service Academy, Pentucket is working with local and state police to offer students exposure to their work. On one occasion, a State Police helicopter “landed and did a demonstration for our students,” Mulqueen said.

The Tilton School became an innovation school for the 2012-13 school year. According to Mary Malone, Haverhill’s assistant school superintendent, it has initiated a program to promote a positive culture in the building; mandated school uniforms; developed specialized teacher training to meet the school’s needs; and created “enrichment block” periods.

The O’Maley Middle School is now in its second year as an innovation school, with a focus on project-based learning, which means having students learn through engaging in real-world projects, according to Gloucester School Superintendent Richard Safier.

“What we are in the process of doing is trying to back up that kind of teaching and learning with technology,” he said.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.
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