Grants and Other Financial Assistance Programs

FY2019: Empowering Educators through Autonomy Planning Grant

Fund Codes: 327/326


The purpose of this competitive grant program is to provide districts with funding and support to explore structures that promote greater school-level autonomy and empower educators. The planning grant will provide assistance for local stakeholders to participate in an exploration process to determine how their school community can best create sustained autonomy.


While Massachusetts is recognized as having one of the highest-performing education systems in the country, substantial gaps in student outcomes persist, and too often those gaps are correlated with students' racial/ethnic identification, family economic background, disability status, and English language proficiency. Seven years of research on school turnaround in Massachusetts shows that districts can accelerate school improvement through evidence-based strategies with the support of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

School improvement can be accelerated by empowering those who are closest to students to make decisions by granting greater autonomy to a cluster of schools. Greater school-level autonomy over key levers such as staffing, schedule, curriculum, resource allocation, and school culture empowers educators to design schools that best match their students' needs in order to improve student achievement. These school autonomies can be sustained through purposeful, supportive structures.

It also allows districts to partner with key stakeholders, including teachers' unions, the state, and outside partners, to empower a cluster of schools that operates differently than schools in the rest of the district with the goal of empowering educators to make key decisions in their schools.

DESE outlined the importance of greater school autonomy in its ESSA plan by stating that districts with low-performing schools should explore innovation zones or other structures which would grant a cluster of schools, within a district, with additional "autonomies, flexibilities, and compensation systems necessary for persistently low-performing schools." The effectiveness of sustained school-based autonomy as an effective practice in school turnaround is noted in DESE's Turnaround Practice and Research Evaluation Reports.

For example, in 2014, the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership (SEZP) pioneered a different approach to collaboration. The Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership is a voluntary partnership of Springfield Public Schools (SPS), DESE, and the Springfield Education Association (SEA) aimed at rapidly improving outcomes for Springfield's students. SEZP now includes eleven schools serving approximately 80% of all middle school students and 20% of all high school students in Springfield, the second-largest school district in New England.

Districts will require significant support in the exploration process as they decide whether enhanced school autonomy, and aligned structures to support and sustain autonomy, is a fit for their community. In collaboration with Empower Schools, DESE will support districts in determining whether this approach is the right fit for their community. This support could include but is not limited to:

  • Convenings or visits for district leaders and community stakeholders to learn about the autonomous models in Springfield and Lawrence
  • Workshops to explore the benefits of autonomy and ways to achieve it


All Massachusetts Local Education Agencies (districts) and Massachusetts schools are eligible to apply for this grant.

Districts will be given competitive priority in scoring for each of the following eligibilities:

  • Percentage of high needs students served
  • Vision for promoting equitable learning outcomes across the district with consideration to the subset of students not meeting learning targets
  • Submission of a vision for exploration with names of district members who will comprise a district exploration team. The team must include members working at the district level and a school leader.

Funding Type:



Approximately $30,000 is available through private funds.

Districts apply for up to $30,000 to support the activities described above. Grant applications above $10,000 are conditional based on DESE approval of a proposal demonstrating that the district will complete the products and outcomes of these activities.

Funding is contingent upon availability. All dollar amounts listed are estimated/approximate and are subject to change. If more funding is to become available, it will be distributed under the same guideline as listed in the initial RFP document.

Fund Use:

Fund use must be consistent with the priorities described above, with the goal of exploring structures to promote autonomy for schools and enhanced decision-making for educators. Funds may be used for a variety of activities, including but not limited to:

  • Stipends for educators to participate in the exploration team
  • Travel funds to visit districts using autonomous school structures
  • Costs for facilitators and/or exploration consultants
  • Etc.

Project Duration:

Upon Approval (no earlier than 2/1/19) – 6/30/2019

Program Unit:

Center for District Support; Office of Strategic Transformation


Lauren Woo

Phone Number:


Date Due:

Friday, February 1, 2019

Proposals must be received by 5:00 p.m. on the date due.

Required Forms:
Download Word Document
Part I — General — Program Unit Signature Page* — (Standard Contract Form and Application for Program Grants)
Download Excel Document
Part II — Budget Detail Pages
Download Word Document
Part III — Vision for Exploration

Please note: the signature page indicates that the district leadership team is aware and in support of this exploration.

Additional Information:

If awarded funding, awardees must participate in monthly meetings with the DESE team to provide updates on progress and explore the need for further support. One site visit by the DESE team will be a part of progress review as part of a mid-way check point. In concluding the exploration, districts will submit an exit summary no more than 1–2 pages within a provided template and present their finding in an end of grant presentation.

Submission Instructions:
  • Applicants must submit a 1–2-page vision for exploration. The vision will include an explanation of why the district is interested in exploring autonomous structures, which group or subset of students this structure may support and how an autonomous structure will promote a vision for equity. Also, districts must designate a team dedicated to exploring this structure using the funds and supports provided by DESE. The vision must list the name of at least one district staff member and school leader who will comprise a district exploration team.
  • Applications must be submitted to Lauren Woo by the deadline listed above.

Awarded Recipients: Upon award, recipients will be required to enter the approved budget and Part I in EdGrants. Once selected, recipients will be contacted with further instructions on the process.

Last Updated: December 6, 2018

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