Flexible scheduling gives students more control of their learning, allows them to explore wide array of topics.
Tinsae, a rising 11th grader who is passionate about computer science, had a little taste of what it’s like to be a teacher last winter: he was allowed to share some of his extensive knowledge of programming with his fellow students at The Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, Massachusetts.
“That whole week, I got to teach what I loved,” Tinsae said. “I wanted people to be aware of the potential in the IT field. I was really nervous because I didn’t think people would be interested, but it turned out people were really interested.”
School staff helped Tinsae put together the lessons for the programming group, which was just one of many mini-courses offered during two weeks his school dedicates to “intensives.” The intensives, most of which are led by teachers, give students a chance to delve deeply into topics such as video production, LEGO robotics and the science of science fiction. The school uses these courses to give students more control over their learning, by allowing some students to share what they learn and letting all students choose which ones to take.
To help Tinsae deepen his knowledge of IT even more, the school helped him get an internship in which he will try to hack into the computer system of insurance company Mass Mutual to test its security measures.
The Springfield Renaissance School is one of 54 “innovation schools” serving approximately 21,000 students in 26 school districts across the State. Under legislation signed by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick in 2010, the schools operate with greater autonomy in six key areas (see text box) allowing them to try different approaches to increase student learning and close achievement gaps. However, if the schools don’t meet the agreed upon measurable annual goals developed by the innovation plan committee and approved by the local school district, then the school committee may, at the request of the district superintendent 1) limit one or more components of the innovation plan, 2) suspend one or more components of the innovation plan, or 3) terminate the authorization of the school; provided that the limitation and/or suspension does not take place prior to the completion of the second year of operation and that termination does not take place prior to the completion of the third full year of operation.
The innovation schools statute lists 15 eligible applicants that can establish an innovation school, including parents, teachers, principals, and community organizations. Massachusetts previously provided competitive funding to support the innovation school planning process through the State’s Race to the Top award and Gates Foundation funding and now funds these grants with State resources. The schools can be new, conversions of existing schools, or academies that operate as part of larger schools. The first stage of the innovation school approval process includes a two-thirds vote of the innovation school prospectus by the 3-person screening committee that includes the school district’s superintendent, a representative from the local teacher’s union, and a representative from the local school committee. The second stage of the process includes the development of the detailed innovation plan by the innovation plan committee, a two-thirds vote of the teachers in the school that is proposed for conversion, a public hearing, and approval by the majority of the school committee. The detailed innovation plan must clearly articulate the areas of autonomy and flexibility proposed and how they are expected to improve student achievement.