In Massachusetts, Education Innovation is in Full Force

The final leg of NEA’s 2013 Back-to-School tour came to a close in Massachusetts, where NEA President Dennis Van Roekel received a healthy dose of student-centered, union-led change at Winter Hill Innovation School in Somerville.

Winter Hill Principal Chad Mazza led the tour, which included Massachusetts Teachers Association President Paul Toner, Somerville Teachers Association (STA) Jackie Lawrence, Somerville Public Schools (SPS) Superintendent Anthony Pierontazzi, and SPS Assistant Superintendent Vincent McKay.

The tour showcased various classrooms, including Maureen Cronin’s second-grade class. Mazza praised her teaching strategies and organizational skills of staying on task and keeping students focused.

Five groups of students were peppered throughout the classroom. Cronin was working with four students on how to enunciate the word “shut.” Cronin could be heard saying, “sh-sh-sh-u-t.” The reading specialist in the room was working on phonetics, and three other small groups of students were working independently at learning stations.

The work around the room is based on what’s called, “X-Block,” which is a daily 40-minute intervention and enrichment period where students who require extra help in language arts and math work in small groups with teachers and other education support professionals. For students who exhibit proficiency in these areas engage in other enrichment and challenge activities to further enhance their skills.

Van Roekel intently observed three students during the X-Block period. They were working with math manipulatives. Or, as 7-year-old Annabella Miller explained, “They’re pattern blocks and we have to match the pattern blocks to this shape,” which was a stretched out hexagon.

“What I love about this is that there’s no right answer. They have to do each figure five different ways, which is a good thing to learn,” said Van Roekel. “There isn’t some magical way. It’s finding a way that works–and they’re doing a really great job.”

Cronin, who has been teaching 2nd grade at Winter Hill for nine year, has high hopes for X-Block.

“Last year was our first year doing X-Block and it worked really well,” she said. “I did see that one-on-one attention working in smaller groups,” adding that she was able to concentrate on the strengths and weaknesses of students. “It really makes a difference.”

Also new to the school is a new curriculum called Responsive Classroom, which emphasizes on building academic and social-emotional competencies. The curriculum helps student stay on task and it allows teachers to have a well-organized, managed classroom.

Cronin says that every teacher is wholeheartedly working with the new curriculum, and “the children are starting the day being positive, greeting one another, smiling, and having a little bit of fun. We think Responsive Classroom might be the curriculum that really works.”

What’s so innovative about all this?

Take the curriculum. Normally, a school district would have decided to implement the Responsive Classroom curriculum. At Winter Hill, it was introduced by a teacher.

“We’ve tried a lot of different social curriculums in the past and then a teacher at our school who had tried Responsive Classroom at a previous school said she had  liked it a lot,” explained Cronin. “We did some research and we liked what was presented,” especially the idea of remaining positive about everything and always maintaining a sense of community.

Winter Hill may look like many other urban schools across the country. It sits on the corner of a fairly busy street, sandwiched between a parking lot and a convenience store, where you can pick up quality cold cuts, coffee, and candy. However, the work happening inside the school is far from typical.

This was no accident.

STA President Lawrence saw an opportunity to engage in labor-management collaboration with the school superintendent, Pierontazzi.

Lawrence and Pierontazzi discussed the idea of giving parents an Innovation School. “It was literally a small summit where he and I sat there and asked, ‘What school would welcome innovation?’ And we said Winter Hill.”

As an innovations school, Winter Hill is managed by a board of elected teachers and parents, the principal, and select community members. The group serves for a two-year term. Also, the school staff has more flexibility over instruction and assessment, schedule and calendar, staffing, professional development, district policies and procedures, budget, and curriculum.

Winter Hill is the only school in the district to operate as an Innovation School. Two others, however, are on the way. Across the state of Massachusetts, there are about 50 schools up and running.

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Paul Toner, who was a part of the tour said that, “As an Innovation School, this is an example of how teachers and administrators can really work closely together to rethink how they do things and bring new, positive energy into the school,” adding that an innovation model gives people on the ground, in the classroom, the chance to develop a plan that meets the needs of their community rather than having a scripted cookie cutter plan imposed on them.

“Collaboration is key. That is the answer,” said Van Roekel. “We, the adults in the system, must be willing to sit down at a common table and figure out how to do this well for the students. Despite all of the challenges that may be out there, I am really optimistic. I believe this is the time for us to come together –all of the adults in the system–and say, ‘we can do better in America.’”