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Can Springfield, Mass. initiative provide model for change in Wilmington schools?

Delaware Public Media

Gov. John Carney has spent the last two months pitching his “Wilmington Learning Collaborative.”

He believes the plan will transform the city’s underperforming elementary and middle schools, in part because of similar reform initiatives he says have worked elsewhere – including Springfield, Massachusetts.

This week, contributor Larry Nagengast takes a closer look at the Springfield Empowerment Zone – and how it might influence Carney’s proposal for Wilmington.

Delaware Public Media's Tom Byrne and contributor Larry Nagengast discuss the Springfield Empowerment Zone.

For more than two months, Gov. John Carney has been talking to educators, parents, community leaders and interest groups in and around Wilmington, pitching a plan for a “Wilmington Learning Collaborative” that he hopes would transform the underperforming elementary and middle schools in the city.

At almost every stop, Carney points to similar types of reform initiatives that he says have worked in other cities. The one he cites most often is the Springfield Empowerment Zone, a partnership launched seven years ago to prevent a state takeover of failing middle schools in that Massachusetts city.

In terms of meeting the needs of Wilmington students, “the best fit appears to be Springfield,” Carney told the Red Clay Board of Education in November.

While there are numerous similarities between the reality of Springfield Empowerment Zone and Carney’s sketch for the collaborative, Springfield must be considered more a model than a match.

Matt Brunell, co-executive director of the Springfield Empowerment Zone Program
Springfield Empowerment Zone
Matt Brunell, co-executive director of the Springfield Empowerment Zone Program

And it cannot be considered the magical silver bullet that would somehow take schools filled largely with low-income minority students who have special educational needs and perform well below state norms and turn them into bastions of academic excellence.

“I don’t want to sugarcoat this. There will be some tumult. To phrase it in a more positive way, there will be some change,” says Matt Brunell, co-executive director of the Springfield Empowerment Zone Program, the nonprofit unit created to oversee the middle schools.

“Across the board school gains are really difficult to see, especially in the first year,” Brunell says.

When the Empowerment Zone was created, the seven participating middle schools were rated at “Level 4,” the lowest tier in Massachusetts’ school assessment system. Since then, only three of those schools have progressed out of that tier and only two or three of the principals chosen at the start of the program remain in their original roles, according to Emma Sanchez, a teacher leadership team coach in the Empowerment Zone.

Currently, the Empowerment Zone consists of 15 middle and high schools, enrolling about 5,300 students. Enrollments within the zone mirror the district, officials say, with Latino students accounting for about 68% of the student population and Black students about 18%.

Similarities and differences

Carney’s proposed Wilmington Learning Collaborative would create a new layer of school governance that would have direct responsibility for operating traditional elementary and middle schools in Wilmington that are part of the Brandywine, Red Clay and Christina school districts. Officially, those schools would remain attached to their current districts but a new “trustee partnership board,” composed of representatives of all three districts plus community leaders, would essentially serve as a city-only school board. There would also be a small administrative team responsible for school management.

This arrangement parallels what exists in Springfield, where a board of directors consisting of the mayor, school superintendent, a school board representative and four persons named by the state commissioner of education oversees the Empowerment Zone staff and the individual schools.

“It’s human nature. When more people are working together, the harder it is."
Matt Matera, a partner in Empower Schools

The overall details of the Springfield Empowerment Zone are spelled out in contracts signed by the state Department of Education, the school district and its teachers’ union, the Springfield Education Association. Carney’s proposal for Wilmington anticipates a similar arrangement, with one key difference, and additional challenge: it would require agreement among three school districts and three teachers’ unions.

“It’s human nature. When more people are working together, the harder it is,” said Matt Matera, a partner in Empower Schools, an organization that helped set up the Springfield initiative and similar programs in other cities nationwide.

But Matera believes that a three-district partnership could work in Wilmington. He pointed to a successful three-district collaboration he worked on in a rural area of Texas. “What made it work was that all three districts were committed to the partnership. Sometimes it’s three conversations instead of one. That takes more time,” he said.

According to the Empowerment Zone website, its schools look “the same as a traditional school” but have “a key difference: meaningful and protected school-level autonomy.” In practice, this means that teachers have a major role in decision-making. At each school, teachers elect a Teacher Leadership Team that writes a new School Operational Plan each year. These plans are specific to the needs of each school’s enrollment. For example, Sanchez said, a school with a high percentage of Latino students might devote additional resources to classes for English learners and might include a Puerto Rico Day parade as a special event.

Gov. Carney listens to a question during a recent public meeting on his Wilmington Learning Collaborative plan
State of Delaware
Gov. Carney listens to a question during a recent public meeting on his Wilmington Learning Collaborative plan

Carney’s proposal calls for teacher leadership teams to work with building administrators on school-based decisions. Each school would also have a community council that would advise the leadership teams and the school administration. Details of how these units would mesh with each other have not been worked out. Carney has repeatedly said that such decisions will be made at the local level, either in writing the memorandums of understanding (MOUs) that would establish the collaborative or by the partnership board of trustees once it is set up.

One potential area of difference between Springfield and Carney’s plan concerns curriculum at participating schools.

Carney and his education team have frequently mentioned the need for a uniform curriculum at Wilmington schools, so students who move across district lines – hardly unusual with four districts now serving city residents – can seamlessly continue their instruction when they enter a new school. But his draft plan also mentions “flexibility,” and cites the possibility of creating schools that focus on special themes, like STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) or the arts.

In Springfield, schools have great autonomy in developing curriculum and learning plans. The Empowerment Zone board sets “bold but attainable performance goals” for each school, according to its website, and leaves it up to each school’s Teacher Leadership Team to design the programming needed to reach those goals.

Goal-setting and curriculum decisions vary by community, Matera said. “In Springfield, each school picked its own curriculum. In Fort Worth, Texas, they went with one curriculum.”

The Springfield Experience

According to Matera, Brunell and Sanchez, the key to the Empowerment Zone’s progress has been the personnel working in the schools.

Matera, who was involved with the first two years of the program, said “we focused on recruiting [teachers], doing new things, giving the teachers the opportunity to be empowered. And we encouraged principals to be thoughtful and aggressive.”

“In a district school, it’s a top-down environment, but here we do things from the bottom up."
Mike Calvarese, executive principal for three Springfield Empowerment Zone schools

The role of the principal is especially challenging, Brunell says, because it involves not only sharing decision-making with the school’s Teacher Leadership Team but then having the responsibility for carrying out an operational plan that is modified each year, with new and more challenging objectives added during each cycle.

“That type of leadership is something you’re not prepared for when you’re working for your [principal’s] license,” he says. “Some principals my not be able to cut it [in the Empowerment Zone] but would be fine principals within a traditional district system.”

The key is building relationships with both teachers and the community and practicing “situational leadership,” says Mike Calvarese, an executive principal responsible for leading three schools in the Empowerment Zone.

“In a district school, it’s a top-down environment,” where the staff has to do what the principal tells them to do, “but here we do things from the bottom up,” Calvarese says.

The contractual arrangements for the Empowerment Zone provide security for principals as long as they continue to make progress toward their school’s goals. Thinking outside the box – and acting on those thoughts – is encouraged.

“We don’t have to ask for permission. We don’t have to wait for approval. And we don’t have to worry about the [district] superintendent, which is nice,” Calvarese says.

While that sounds good, that doesn’t make it easy, says Sanchez, a Teacher Leadership Team member at Duggan Academy, one of Calvarese’s schools. “In the Empowerment Zone, a principal has a lot more responsibility. The job is really demanding. They have to manage a lot more and share control,” she says.

Gov. John Carney (seated , center right) visited the Spring Empowerment Zone with Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker in Oct. 2017
Mass. Governor's office
Gov. John Carney (seated , center right) visited the Spring Empowerment Zone with Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker in Oct. 2017

Empowerment Zone officials describe their operation as a blend between a traditional district and charter schools. Schools in the zone receive funding from the district and rely on certain district services (payroll, human resources, transportation, for example) but decisions on curriculum and most school-specific matters are made at the building level. Schools also have some leeway in accessing district services. In certain areas, occupational therapy, for example, if a school believes it can find a better, or less costly provider in the private sector, it can contract for that service rather than using district personnel, Brunell says.

Higher salaries attract teachers to the Empowerment Zone but “having a say in what goes on” is what keeps them there, says Sanchez, who is a union representative in addition to her teaching responsibilities.

“The creation of a community and development of a school culture really matters,” she says.

At Duggan Academy, one of the three schools he leads, teacher turnover is next to nothing, but it took six years to reach that point, Calvarese says. This year, his entire teaching staff returned, and only one teacher will be leaving at the end of the spring semester. “Once we build a solid team, it stays solid,” he says.

Building a stable team that writes, updates and implements a new operational plan each year has helped create a positive culture at Empowerment Zone schools, making students and teachers feel happier and safer.

But that doesn’t necessarily translate into meeting standards on state assessments or closing the achievement gap between high-needs and more privileged students, officials acknowledge. How the school scores on the state’s standard tests is less important than the progress shown on the zone’s internal metrics that measure success in meeting school and zone goals, they say.

Duggan Academy, Calvarese says, has moved out of the state’s “Level 4” classification and is making “substantial progress” to reaching targets set by the zone’s leaders. The two other schools he oversees are also making progress but “haven’t hit state levels.”

Making changes

In its seven years of operation, Springfield’s Empowerment Zone has experienced significant changes. It started with seven middle schools but now numbers 11 middle schools and four high schools. The realignment didn’t necessarily add new buildings. In some cases, middle schools that were deemed too large to operate effectively were split into two or three pieces. In other cases, the success of a middle school format birthed a high school, resulting in students in grades 6-12 learning in the same building.

In Wilmington, Carney’s proposal does not call for involving high schools, but he has said that topic needs to be addressed in the future. In Springfield, officials said, one of the reasons for adding high schools to the zone was a concern that students entering high school would have lost some of the supports they received in middle school – an issue that is already raising concern in Wilmington.

In setting up new programs in the Empowerment Zone, educators have used two approaches: transforming an entire school at once or phasing in new programming one grade at a time.

The all-at-once approach can be overwhelming, but is necessary in some situations, Calvarese says, while a phase-in is usually more orderly, “lets you learn quicker from the mistakes you make and gets systems right one grade at a time.”

Advice for Delaware

Having sufficient time to plan the new arrangement is important, Springfield officials say, noting that they had most of the 2014-15 school year set aside for planning. Carney took a step in that direction last week, telling local school boards he would push the starting date for the collaborative from this fall to the fall of 2023.

Brunell says it is important for the collaborative’s board to have strong leaders from outside the school system who can push for major changes and “give some cover” to board members representing the school districts.

“I don’t want to sugarcoat this. There will be some tumult. To phrase it in a more positive way, there will be some change.”
Matt Brunell, co-executive director of the Springfield Empowerment Zone Program

And, they say, especially in the early years of the collaborative, look for improvements in the school culture – the happiness and safety of students and staff – and stability in leadership and instruction, rather than for higher scores on standardized tests.

“There are going to be transitions in leadership. Some people won’t be there for long,” Calvarese says. “Eventually you’ll have stable buildings, leaders who will stay there for years and success will come.”

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Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.