Pioneering New Models for District Schools in Massachusetts

Sarah Toce, GSF, Boston, 2013

Empower Schools and EP Alumna Sarah Toce are working to make the debate over school district vs. charter school a thing of the past.

“Our theory of action represents a third way,” said Sarah, Director of Policy for Empower. “We’re proving that a district can get the best of what charter schools have to offer without forgoing local control and funding. We are creating schools and systems that are both local and autonomous, district and charter.”

In practice, building autonomous district schools isn’t easy and requires a lot of creativity. In Massachusetts, the state has a strong school turnaround law that allows intervention and innovation to change underperforming schools, but according to Sarah “you have to know how to use it and how to apply it in different settings and in new ways. That means thinking outside the box continually.”

As a result, Empower can partner with local public school districts to tailor-make the systems, structures, and schools they want to achieve the student results they need.

To date, Empower has pioneered new models and open systems of schools in three Massachusetts communities – Lawrence, Salem, and Springfield. For each of the districts, Empower designed a unique model to solve individual community challenges and dynamics.

In Lawrence, the entire district had been taken over by the state in 2011 because of chronic underperformance. There, Empower partnered with Lawrence’s new receiver/superintendent to help design an “open system, powerful schools” model where all schools are district schools, but have charter-like flexibilities. Principals and teachers are empowered to make key decisions about budgets, staffing, curriculum, and more while their schools remain a part of the district. (EP Alumna Julie Swerdlow Albino currently serves as the Lawrence Public School’s Chief Redesign Officer.)

In Salem, the mayor wanted a high-quality charter operator to turnaround the district’s lowest performing school while keeping it a district school. Empower assessed the local political environment and helped Salem define the pathway to get the outcome they wanted, which included pushing autonomy and flexibility to the school level. Empower recruited a new principal, and enabled a complete redesign of the academic program which required the teachers to reapply for their jobs. While the school is just completing its first year, the interim benchmarks indicate that the school’s performance is dramatically higher now.

In Springfield, the district had six schools identified by the state as low performing. There, Empower pioneered a new model to help Springfield take bold action and prevent a state takeover of the schools.

“I’m most proud of our Springfield work, which is unlike anything we’ve seen in the country,” Sarah says. “We helped Springfield take full advantage of the flexibilities provided by the state law to create an Empowerment Zone Partnership of schools that are still part of the district and publicly funded but operate autonomously with a novel governance. Eighty percent of all middle graders in Springfield attend these schools and we are excited about the possibility of these schools to see gains very quickly.”

Each of the Empowerment Zone schools reports to an independent governing body (known as the Empowerment Zone Partnership Board of Directors), made up of local and state representatives – an unprecedented joint governance model between the city and the state in Massachusetts.

The response to Empower’s work in Lawrence, Salem, and Springfield has been overwhelmingly positive.

“In Springfield, teachers ratified the collective bargaining agreement at ninety-two percent,” Sarah explains. “That means nine out of ten teachers in the new zone who are being asked to do more and be accountable said, ‘yes, I want in.’”

In addition, relations between teachers’ unions and the districts have been positive, even as they work through thorny issues. Similarly, public reaction has also been positive, in part because community leaders like mayors, superintendents, locally-elected school boards, and union representatives are championing the changes.

For Sarah, who chose an education policy career path to make an impact for teachers after witnessing teachers struggle in disempowering school environments, she’s thrilled to play a key part in transforming the teaching profession.

“What we’re creating in open systems and powerful schools is a totally new world for teachers,” Sarah says. “The environment is much more professional, it respects teachers’ ability and expertise, and it expects more from them. Seeing those environments begin to exist in districts and schools make me feel really good about the path I chose ten years ago.”


Kendra Racouillat

Kendra Racouillat is the Senior Writer for Education Pioneers. She works to tell powerful stories to help ensure that our nation's brightest leaders continue to choose high-impact career paths in education so that every student in our country receives an outstanding education.



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