hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

January 11, 2012

Tilton tabbed as 'innovation school'

By Tim McCarthy
tmccarthy@hgazette.com

The city's public schools are looking not to just renovate their buildings in the coming years, but innovate their teaching methods as well.

School leaders said that by the fall, they plan to implement a new educational concept at Tilton Elementary School called "innovation" schooling.

Innovation schools implement their own curriculums, schedules and hiring policies, similar to the way a public charter school operates.

A charter school receives state money to operate and is allowed to develop a curriculum different from that of the rest of the community's school district. Charter schools also do not answer to the community's school committee.

Mary Malone, assistant superintendent of curriculum, said the district chose Tilton to pilot the innovation school program because of the school's low-income population, poor scores on the MCAS tests, and Principal Mary Beth Maranto's willingness to try the program.

Malone said Tilton's plan will focus on a redesigned curriculum and possibly a new schedule requiring longer school days and shorter summer vacations.

Parents of children at Tilton can opt out and send their children to another Haverhill school if they disagree with the changes, school officials said.

"We would hope everybody wants to come to this school," Malone said.

Mayor James Fiorentini, who is chairman of the School Committee, announced the Tilton innovation plan during his inauguration speech at the start of January.

"It's supposed to be every kid has the opportunity for success," Fiorentini said, noting the neighborhoods surrounding Tilton typically have students with low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Raymond Serpina, a School Committee member and former Tilton principal, said the district should exercise patience before adopting big changes in education theories. Serpina said the popular "open concept" classrooms of the 1970s, implemented at Methuen High School and Greater Lawrence Technical High School, ultimately proved unsuccessful and forced expensive renovations decades later.

Serpina argued that longer school days and fewer vacations wouldn't help disadvantaged children who come from homes that are nonsupportive of educational pursuits.

"Just because you're poor doesn't mean you can't learn, but you've got to have support," he said. "I wonder how much responsibility we're taking away from the parents."

Massachusetts public and private schools were given the option to create innovation schools when Gov. Deval Patrick signed the Achievement Gap Act in 2010. The bill focused primarily on giving schools more options for improving standardized test scores and student performance.

Unlike with charter schools, funding for an innovation school would remain part of the school district's budget. Traditionally, the Massachusetts Department of Education requires districts to pay a tuition fee for each student from their district attending a charter school.

Unlike charter schools, innovation schools must report to the district's administration and allow their teachers to be members of the citywide teachers union. Charter schools normally bypass local leadership and report directly to the state.

The state Department of Education has allocated $1.5 million from Massachusetts' Race to the Top fund and a $600,000 grant provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation toward the creation of innovation schools in the Bay State.

Schools classified as Level 3 by the state due to their poor MCAS scores are given priority for the grants. Tilton, despite improvements in both math and English language arts MCAS scores last year, is classified as a Level 3 school.