Springfield, Massachusetts, is where the United States’ one wholly indigenous sport – basketball – was invented. It may soon be known for a completely different innovation.
The Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership (SEZP) is an attempt to create within the public schools the conditions that make charter schools successful, without the poisonous politics that often accompany expanding charters. The school district has contracted with a nonprofit board, a 501(c)3 organization, to oversee struggling middle schools. That board, which acts as a buffer between schools and district management, has empowered nine schools with autonomy and accountability, while bringing in an outside school management organization to run one of them.
These schools – and, in fact, the Zone as a whole – remain part of the public school district, drawing on it for a range of shared services. The teachers in the Zone are unionized; indeed, the union voted for these reforms. But the existing and new principals at the reins are being given authority to choose their own teaching teams, propound a vision for their school, and restructure the school day, curriculum, and budget to achieve it. While teachers cannot be dismissed at will, principals do receive support to help underperforming teachers improve where possible and to remove them where necessary. And there are real consequences – for principals and teachers alike – for school failure.