Schools getting attention of governor, nation for unique learning style

The focus in the classroom is still on common core and improving standardized testing, but there's more of an emphasis on the individual student and small group work.

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – There’s a new type of learning in Springfield that’s getting the attention of the governor and the nation. It’s known as the empowerment zone and consists of 8 middle and high schools in the district.

Simply put: Empowerment zone schools are public schools with elements of traditional public and charter schools.

“This is definitely a pioneering experience. They say this is the city of firsts, so this is another first opportunity,” said Duggan Middle and High School Principal Michael Calvanese. He said in a traditional public school, decisions on the curriculum are made for the school. In a charter school, those decisions are made by a board or management company separate from the district. In an empowerment zone school, a board makes the decisions. That board consists of the mayor, superintendent, school committee chairman and four state representatives.

Calvanese said he has autonomy from the district to recruit teachers, manage his own budget and determine the length of the school day, which is an hour longer. “We spend our time with our teacher leadership team to develop a schedule that works for our kids, which is unusual considering a traditional district, you sort of get that all given to you,” Calvanese told 22News.

Teachers are still part of the Springfield teachers’ union, known as the Springfield Education Association.

Unlike a charter school where students are enrolled based on a lottery system, empowerment zone schools are more like a traditional public school because students can attend based off of it being their neighborhood school or parents’ choice.

The focus in the classroom is still on common core and improving standardized testing, but there’s more of an emphasis on the individual student and small group work. Empowerment zone schools can have different focal points. At Duggan, it’s on literature and students start each day with a half hour of reading.

Sixth-grader Christopher Marti said his family also went to Duggan, but he likes the different way of learning. He said the school day doesn’t seem so long because it’s divided into many different parts throughout the day. “We have cultural enrichments which is just a two-hour block for one day each week where we just kind of have fun and we get kind of like an enrichment of our choice,” Marti told 22News. His enrichment time is dedicated to music. He’s learning to play the clarinet among many other instruments.

Duggan is funded by state and local money. It’s also a magnet school. A magnet school has a specific mission that attracts certain students. While some may focus on the arts, Duggan focuses on social justice. Because of its magnet school designation, Duggan receives federal funding as well. It’s one of eight empowerment zone schools in Springfield, together serving more than 4,400 students.

Springfield’s empowerment zone was recognized by Governor Charlie Baker in his 2017 State of the Commonwealth Address. It’s also getting attention from districts across the country. To read more about how this type of education came to fruition, click here.