hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

April 18, 2012

Editorial: Tilton School deserves chance to try something different

The Tilton Elementary School's struggle could wind up being its salvation.

Tilton has a high population of minority students — about 53 percent, compared to 31 percent for the district as a whole. Many have difficulty with the English language. Sixty-four percent of its students are from low-income families, compared to 40 percent districtwide.

Scores on standardized tests are poor and the school has failed to meet state goals for improvement. Ironically, failure has created an opportunity.

City officials hope that the answer for Tilton will be to make it the city's first, and one of the state's first, "innovation schools." (See story on page 1 by Mike LaBella.)

The Innovation School Initiative was a key component of education reform legislation signed by Gov. Deval Patrick in January 2010, designed to close the stubborn achievement gap between poor, urban schools and other schools.

The idea behind the initiative is simple: Since what those schools are doing now isn't working, it's time to try something different.

Innovation schools operate under the umbrella of the local school district and receive the same per-pupil spending allocation as other schools. But like charter schools, innovation school are given greater autonomy and can set their own curriculum, schedule and school calendar and make staffing decisions and seek waivers from some school policies and union contract provisions.

In return, the schools must develop innovation plans and meet annual benchmarks showing progress in improving school and student performance.

Twenty innovation schools have already been approved by the state; 18 are already in operation.

In February, Patrick announced planning grants to for 29 more innovation schools that could open this fall. One was Tilton.

Tilton was chosen by Haverhill school officials because of its demographics, test score difficulties and the willingness of its principal to embrace change.

Before any change can happen, however, the school's innovation plan must win the approval of two-thirds of the school's teachers and a majority of School Committee members.

If teachers OK the plan, the School Committee is expected to hold a public hearing and vote on the proposal next month.

If all systems are go, the school will receive another grant, up to $75,000, to implement the plan.

Tilton Principal Mary Beth Maranto said an informal poll showed the great majority of teachers support the plan, which calls for having teachers work intensely with small groups of students on subjects they are struggling to master. Uniforms might be required to identify the Tilton "community."

But School Committee members are skeptical of the plan, though they agree change is needed. School Committee Chairman and Mayor James Fiorentini said he has "grave concerns" the innovation plan doesn't go far enough and urged school planners to give more thought to a longer school day and shorter summer break to increase learning time.

School Superintendent James Scully asked the committee to give Tilton a chance to work out the details before the public hearing next month. School Committee President Susan Danehy suggested committee members communicate any changes they'd like to see before the hearing.

It would be a tragedy to see the plan derailed at this point — or to see a plan imposed by the School Committee that won't be embraced by teachers as their own.

The parents and kids of Tilton deserve better, and teachers deserve a chance to show what they can do with more freedom.

We think Erin Barnard, a third-grade teacher and innovation planning committee member, had it exactly right when she spoke in favor of change.

"We would finally have the autonomy to make the kinds of changes so many of us want to make," she told the School Committee. "This is crucial. We have to make changes as what we've been doing isn't working."