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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
May 13, 2016


The Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership (SEZP) is a groundbreaking voluntary partnership of Springfield Public Schools (SPS), the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), the Springfield Education Association (SEA), and Empower Schools aimed at rapidly improving outcomes for Springfield's middle school students. The Empowerment Zone was created in 2014 to manage nine underperforming Springfield Public Schools middle schools serving over 4,000 of the 5,100 Springfield students in grades six through eight:

  • Forest Park Middle School
  • Kennedy Middle School
  • Kiley Middle School
  • Duggan Academy
  • Chestnut South Middle School
  • Chestnut North Middle School
  • Chestnut Talented and Gifted Middle School
  • Van Sickle Academy
  • Van Sickle IB Middle School.

SEZP prioritizes the school as the unit of success, based on the principle that schools and communities thrive when great educators are empowered to run schools and are simultaneously supported and held accountable for their students' results.

SEZP is pioneering an approach that utilizes school level autonomy, a portfolio of management approaches for the individual schools, and joint state/local governance. Educators at each school are empowered to make key decisions on budgeting, staffing, scheduling, curriculum, and professional development. SEZP believes this combination will increase student achievement at scale in a collaborative and sustainable way.

A seven-member governing board comprised of three SPS and four DESE representatives oversees The Springfield Empowerment Zone. The SEZP is operated by Empower Schools, a Boston-based nonprofit that partners with communities to assist with turnaround efforts, two SEZP employees, and consulting and contractual partners selected by SEZP. The SEZP works closely with Springfield Public Schools and relies on the district's finance, human resources, and other similar departments.

The nine middle schools have Level 4 (underperforming) status. Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 69, §1J(i) gives a superintendent the power to select and appoint a nonprofit entity with full managerial and operational control of a school designated as underperforming, which is the pathway by which the Springfield superintendent appointed SEZP to govern the nine schools. The Springfield School Committee ratified the superintendent's selection of SEZP through a Memorandum of Understanding with SEZP and DESE.

SEZP Timeline:

  • In October 2014, SPS, DESE, and Empower Schools entered into a Letter of Intent that laid out the plan for what became the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership.

  • During fall 2014, SPS and the Springfield Education Association negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement that applies only to SEZP schools.

  • On November 13, 2014, SEZP incorporated as an independent nonprofit.

  • On December 11, 2014, SPS, DESE, and SEZP entered into a Memorandum of Understanding that sets forth the parameters of the Empowerment Zone's operation.

  • From December 2014 through June 2015, SEZP worked collaboratively with SPS, DESE, and the Springfield Education Association to plan for the launch of the Empowerment Zone and worked with each of the nine schools to adopt and begin implementing plans leveraging their new autonomies around hiring, budget and schedules.

  • As of July 1, 2015, SEZP officially governs the schools in the Empowerment Zone.

Key Structural Aspects of SEZP

  1. SEZP Board - SEZP has a 7-member board that governs the nonprofit. Four members are appointed by the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education to serve 5-year terms; the other three members represent the Springfield community in their official capacities. The current board members are:
    1. Chris Gabrieli, Chairman
    2. James Morton
    3. Beverly Holmes
    4. John Davis
    5. Domenic J. Sarno (in his role as Mayor of Springfield)
    6. Daniel J. Warwick (in his role as Superintendent of SPS)
    7. Chris Collins (in his role as Vice Chairman of the Springfield School Committee)

  2. Memorandum of Understanding - The agreement among SEZP, SPS, and DESE sets forth the parameters of the Empowerment Zone's operations and describes roles and responsibilities. SPS has given the SEZP Board direct control of about 85 percent of all per-student funding for the nine schools and the SEZP Board has full operational and managerial control of the schools. SPS provides facilities and key operational supports in areas such as human resources, student enrollment, transportation, and facilities maintenance, and delegates educational decision making in areas such as staffing, curriculum, schedule, budget use, and culture to the SEZP Board and the nine schools.

  3. Collective Bargaining Agreement - Teachers at SEZP schools ratified the new collective bargaining agreement with 92 percent support. The lean contract is based on the agreement developed and implemented in Lawrence. It compensates teachers more than at non-Zone schools in Springfield and allows for working conditions to be set at the school level by the principal and a Teacher Leadership Team working together; establishes an extended school day with a stipend for teachers that is affordable; and creates a new career ladder that includes teacher leadership positions.

Key Preparation

As part of the launch of this initiative, SEZP led two important efforts during the spring of 2015:

  1. School planning - Teams of educators and administrators at all SEZP schools collaborated to create comprehensive plans for school improvement. The National Center for Time and Learning led this process, assisting schools to create plans that matched their particular needs. The schools presented their School Operational Plans to the SEZP Board, which unanimously approved all nine plans.

  2. Talent - SEZP partnered with the nationally recognized nonprofit, TNTP, to attract and retain highly talented teachers for schools in the Empowerment Zone. TNTP provided professional development to SEZP administrators on conducting high-quality evaluations and recruiting and hiring effectively. The work paid off as the nine schools, which traditionally have been difficult to staff, opened in the fall of 2015 with 99% of all teacher vacancies filled.

First-Year Summary (School Year 2015-16)

SEZP executed work in four key areas:

  1. Support for Schools

    1. SEZP partnered each school with a nationally recognized organization that served as the Chief Support Partner and helped educators execute the School Operational Plan successfully. The four organizations were the Achievement Network, TNTP, the National Center on Time and Learning, and CT3.

    2. SEZP also provided operational support on matters such as budgeting and human resources.

  2. Support for Students - Inspired by the Acceleration Academies program in Lawrence, SEZP ran math Empowerment Academies over the April vacation this year. More than 500 students voluntarily gave up their vacations to come and work intensively on math with teachers chosen through a competitive application process.

  3. Configure for Success - SEZP believes in making bold changes to address persistently low-performing schools:

    1. SEZP partnered with UP Education Network, a highly successful operator of turnaround schools in the Commonwealth. UP Academy Kennedy will be launching in fall 2016 to manage the Kennedy Middle School, the lowest-performing school in the Empowerment Zone.

    2. SEZP developed the Founders Fellow program to allow outstanding leaders to launch an innovative program one grade at a time as a replacement for an existing low-performing school. Two leaders - Anna Breen, who has been the long-time principal of KIPP Academy Lynn, and Nate Higgins, a leader at a Democracy Prep charter school in New York City - will lead 6th-grade programs at two Empowerment Zone schools, Van Sickle Academy and Chestnut South, this fall. These programs are intended to grow to be full middle-school programs over the next two years.

  4. Innovate with Purpose - SEZP supports the thoughtful exploration of new ways of approaching persistent challenges:

    1. SEZP is piloting a new approach to math instruction, Teach to One from New Classrooms, at one school that elected to participate.

    2. SEZP has also partnered with DESE, the Irene E. & George A. Davis Foundation, Holyoke Public Schools, and several area charter schools on a regional talent recruitment initiative called Teach Western Mass.

The Board will have an opportunity to discuss SEZP with Senior Associate Commissioner Russell Johnston, SEZP Board Chairman and co-founder of Empower Schools Chris Gabrieli, Springfield Superintendent Daniel Warwick, and other SEZP team members at the Board meeting on May 24.

Last Updated: May 16, 2016
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