hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

April 18, 2012

Teachers to vote on Tilton School change

By Mike LaBella

Tilton Elementary School hopes to reinvent itself and turn the tides on its lagging MCAS scores — but first it must gain the support of its teachers.

They are expected to vote early next month on a plan that would transform Tilton into the city's first "innovation school'' — a kind of charter school with creative teaching methods.

If two-thirds of the teachers are in favor of the plan, it would open the door to grant money of anywhere from $25,000 to $75,000 for teacher training. The money would enable Tilton to become an innovation school starting this fall. The state awarded the school a $10,000 grant earlier this year to form a committee to study the concept of innovation schools, allow team members to visit schools of its type in the Boston area, and identify teaching methods at Tilton that are working and not working.

This kind of charter-like school would give teachers more power than they have now to try different teaching methods, allow for greater flexibility in the school day, and allow for new policies such as school uniforms as well as a rewards-based program for students who work hard, school officials said.

"We would finally have the autonomy to make the kinds of changes so many of us want to make," said third-grade teacher Erin Barnard, a member of Tilton's innovation planning committee. "This is crucial. We have to make changes. What we've been doing isn't working."

School officials announced in January their intention to convert Tilton to an innovation school.

At last week's School Committee meeting, Tilton Principal Mary Beth Maranto said if the plan is approved by teachers, she will bring it before the School Committee for public hearing on May 10 and then for a vote on May 24. A majority vote would allow Tilton to submit its plan to the state Department of Education.

Maranto said a mock straw poll showed more than 90 percent of Tilton's teachers support the plan, while others have said "maybe" and are asking questions about it.

A key component of education reform legislation signed into law in January of 2010 by Gov. Deval Patrick was the creation of innovation schools, the first of which are now in their second year of operation. Innovation Schools operate with greater autonomy and flexibility in the areas of curriculum, staffing, budget, scheduling, the school calendar, professional development and district policies, and in trying different ideas to improve student achievement while keeping school funding within the district.

Maranto said despite improvements in both its math and English language arts MCAS scores last year, Tilton failed to meet its state mandated goals for improvement. She said it is time to try something different to help her school's 550 students, almost 70 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch and many of whom are English language learners. One idea is for teachers to work with students in small groups, and from different classrooms, in order to focus on academic areas in which they are struggling, based on extensive assessment testing.

Superintendent James Scully said one facet of the plan is to build a school community within Tilton, and that it might include school uniforms.

Maranto's proposal was met by skepticism by some School Committee members. They asked what would be different than what is being done now and how the program would be evaluated. They also questioned the logic of implementing a school uniform policy.

"I'm going to be a hard sell," committeeman Scott Wood said about the proposal for uniforms.

He said he has yet to see any hard data showing that uniforms help to improve a school's MCAS scores.

Committee members would have the ability to modify the plan. Mayor James Fiorentini, chairman of the School Committee, said he had "grave concerns" and worried that the plan sounded too much like what has been tried before without success. He said going to school longer and studying more is what works, and suggested Maranto visit a KIPP school, which is a type of public charter school intended to help students in low-income communities. Fiorentini said they have a longer school day and a longer school year.

"We should imitate what we know works, and that's the KIPP schools," Fiorentini said of the schools, which stands for Knowledge is Power Program.

Scully asked the committee to give Tilton a chance to work out the plan, which he said has taken a lot of time and effort.

Committee President Susan Danehy said Tilton is now "under the microscope" and is "breaking new ground.'' She encouraged committee members to tell Maranto about any changes or "tweaks" they want to make to the plan prior to the May 10 meeting.

If Tilton becomes an innovation school, students would still register through the normal process and there would be no lottery for available seats such as what takes place at Silver Hill Horace Mann Charter School and Hill View Public Charter School. The school day and school year would mirror the district's, as would the curriculum, which follows the state curriculum frameworks.

"No matter the outcome, this process has been positive and energizing for the staff," Maranto said. "We've created an environment where teachers are comfortable to challenge everyday instruction, and make decisions that are right for the students in front of them."