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UMass Donahue Institute studies Commonwealth pilot schools

A summary of an article by Marla Goldberg that appeared in the Springfield Republican

The UMass Donahue Institute, under a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE), is conducting a study of four struggling urban schools that underwent a conversion to Commonwealth Pilot Schools. These schools include Springfield's John J. Duggan Middle School and Roger L. Putnam Vocational-Technical High School, Boston's English High School, and the Academy Middle School in Fitchburg. Each was identified as underperforming by ESE and re-opened as a Commonwealth Pilot School in September 2007.

With respect to the schools located in Springfield, an interim report authored by the UMass Donahue Institute found that after the conversion to Commonwealth Pilot School status, a number of dramatic changes were made at Duggan while fewer changes occurred at Putnam.

One significant change for Duggan was a reduction in school size, which was accomplished by reducing its boundary zone. As a result, Duggan’s enrollment fell from 778 to 437. It also produced demographic changes, with the number of low-income students decreasing from 81 to 78 percent and non-native English speaking students decreasing from 24 to 17 percent. Meanwhile, students with special needs rose from 26 to 29 percent. In addition, according to school Principal Jonathan Swan, "[Duggan] became more of a neighborhood school."

Duggan also initiated a major overhaul of teaching and student support staff, with a nearly 73 percent turnover from last June 2007 to the current year. We replaced “people who weren’t bad teachers, but were not the type…we wanted for an expeditionary learning school,” stated Swan. Those not retained were offered other positions in the Springfield School system depending upon their job status. In February of 2007, Swan began an aggressive recruiting process that included attending job fairs in Springfield, Boston and at UMass.

The other Springfield school in the study, Roger L. Putnam Vocational-Technical High, was the only Commonwealth Pilot School to increase its enrollment in the past year – up ten percent, from 1,333 to 1,472 students. It could not transfer students to other schools because it is the sole vocational school in Springfield. Small school size is a central principle of the pilot school model, so there was some discussion of dividing Putnam into four smaller schools, but that plan could not be carried out due to space configuration issues. Instead, Putnam has reinforced its “smaller learning community” structures, which include freshman exploratory; construction, design and transportation, communications and technology, allied health, and human services hospitality. “We’re always improving upon the model,” Principal Kevin L. McCaskill stated.

Unlike Duggan, Putnam has not had major staff changes with just a 16% turnover in staff – the lowest turnover rate among the four schools studied. Acknowledging there is little ability to re-assign vocational teachers, the Principal stated his school was headed in the right direction. "We have shown substantial growth in our MCAS scores ... if you're getting these types of great gains, why would you want to deviate from what is working?"

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