Welcome change is coming to Massachusetts schools, and Haverhill is at the forefront.
The city is already home to two public charter schools — Hill View Montessori and Silver Hill Horace Mann — with a combined enrolment of almost 900 students in kindergarten through grade 8.
Now the school district plans to convert Tilton Elementary School into a brand new kind of school, a kind of cross between a traditional public school and a charter school.
It's called an "innovation school."
Innovation schools were authorized by a school reform package signed into law by Gov. Deval Patrick on Martin Luther King Day 2010. A key goal of the reforms is to close the performance gap that still plagues many schools in poor and minority districts, almost two decades after the state's landmark Education Reform Act.
Like charter schools, the innovation schools will be encouraged to find new ways to educate their students. They will have greater flexibility in setting the curriculum, hiring policies and schedules. Longer school days and longer school years can be part of the mix.
Unlike charter schools, which ultimately answer to the state, which grants their charters, the innovation schools will answer to local school committees and remain part of the local school system. They must develop innovation plans that meet the approval of the school committee and local teacher unions.
The innovation school concept is, in part, a response to local school officials who grouse about the money that flows to charter schools from school district funds and who argue that they could do just as good a job as many of the charter schools given the chance and the freedom to experiment.
"There's a lot of resistance to money leaving the districts as (the public schools are) starved for money," Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville said. (See story on page 1.) "If you don't want to see those external charters grow, embrace them internally. Let's beat them at their own game. We wanted to say to educators within the system, they can be every bit as innovative. They have to be bold enough to move away from the status quo."
Haverhill officials seem willing to accept the challenge.
Mayor and School Committee Chairman James Fiorentini announced the plan at his inauguration earlier this month.
Mary Malone, assistant superintendent of curriculum, said Tilton was chosen because of the school's poor scores on the MCAS tests — and Principal Mary Beth Maranto's willingness to try the program.
Local charter school leaders say they welcome the competition.
"I think it's great the district is looking at schools with challenges and looking for ways to improve our public schools," Janet Begin, a founder and former executive director of the 6-year-old Hill View Montessori told reporter Tim McCarthy. "It's another option. They're trying to provide a variety of ways to educate."
Chris Jayne, principal of the 3-year-old Silver Hill charter school, said he's looking forward to sharing successful ideas with the new innovation school. "We're always looking for ways to innovate in education," he said. "Sharing those efforts makes us stronger."
Backers of the innovation concept are right: Competition and the ferment of ideas can make all the schools better. And that's very good news for Haverhill parents and their children.