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Somerville School Committee Votes Against 'Innovation School' Plan

A rendering of the proposed innovation school (Courtesy of Powderhouse Studios)
A rendering of the proposed innovation school (Courtesy of Powderhouse Studios)

Update at 9:14 p.m.: The Somerville School Committee unanimously voted against the Powderhouse Studios innovation school proposal.

Listen to more from the committee meeting from Edify's Max Larkin:


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In a vote nearly seven years in the making, Somerville School Committee members decide Monday night whether to move forward with a new innovation high school.

Innovation schools operate as part of a district, with some autonomy. They differ from charter schools, which are separate districts approved by state regulators.

Under the proposal, the curriculum at the school, called Powderhouse Studios, would center around projects rather than traditional subjects. School leaders said they want to emphasize three core skills: computation, narrative and design.

"There are a lot of folks who we feel would really benefit from spending a lot more time working on hands-on projects of their own design," said Powderhouse co-founder Alec Resnick. "Whether that's because they don't feel like their interests or background are reflected in the curricula you might encounter in a traditional school or because they don't want to be sitting at a desk all day, or because for whatever reason they've come to think that they aren't good at school."

Students would be broken into cohorts of 30 to 40 students, rather than divided into traditional grades. The school would operate year-round, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The idea is to have learning more closely mirror the workplace.

"There are a lot of things about the way that work and learning happens in the real world that don't always parallel the way it might look in a traditional setting with 40- or 80-minute classes per subject," Resnick said.

Powderhouse Studios' proposal received $10 million in funding from the XQ Institute, which is led by Laurene Powell Jobs and former Obama administration education official Russlynn Ali. The funding was part of a competition to re-imagine high school education, with an emphasis on preparing students for the future. Powderhouse Studios would also receive per-pupil funding as a district school.

"This school is actually an interesting kind of exception to the other XQ new schools because it is going to be a district-run school and they have done some thinking about how to try to capture any potential for innovation and feed it back into the existing system," said Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at UMass Lowell who is also Somerville resident.

It's a provocative idea for a city that is changing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in Somerville grew from $61,731 in 2010 to $84,722 in 2017. The district is also investing in its high school in a big way — construction on the city's new $256 million high school is expected to finish in the next two years.

Six of the nine school committee members spoke with WBUR ahead of Monday night's vote, and all six flagged major concerns about the proposal. Four school committee members said they were still deciding how to vote. Two said they would not be able to support the proposal as it stands now. (Five votes are needed to pass.)

Mayor Joseph Curtatone, who's also on the school committee, was unavailable for comment on the Powderhouse Studios proposal. School Superintendent Mary Skipper is planning to make her recommendation to the committee before the vote Monday night, and declined comment before that time.

The biggest concerns for committee members center around equity and resources.

"I can't look at Powderhouse in isolation," said Somerville School Committee Chair Carrie Norman, who was still weighing her vote over the weekend. "I have a responsibility to the 5,000 students currently in our system. If we approve the school, some of them will go there, but what does it mean for everybody?"

Each school committee member cited the achievement gaps in the district between white students and students of color or students with special needs or English language learners when discussing their deliberations about the Powderhouse proposal.

"The biggest challenge I think currently facing Somerville schools is that we don't serve our students equally," said committee member Andre Green. "We are not serving them as well as we ought to be, and if that's my priority, every decision I need to make needs to answer the question of: How is this going to help address that?"

While Somerville students' scores on the 10th grade MCAS test have improved overall during the last 10 years, wide gaps remain between those groups. For example: Only 13 percent of white students scored "needs improvement" or "warning/failing" on the math MCAS in 2017, while 42 percent of African-American students and 35 percent of Hispanic and Latino students had those scores.

Green and others said they did not have enough information about how the school would serve English language learners and special education students.

Another concern school committee members cited: resources. A project-based school requires more teachers and more physical materials. But committee members said they were more concerned about how much time district administrators would have to focus on building a new school from the ground up, which is only projected to enroll around 160 students.

"What I want to be sure of is: Is the investment of time in what is supposed to be a school of 160 students, that it is not taking a significant amount of time away from the investment of time and energy into the other ... 5,000 students in the district?" said school committee member Emily Rydel Ackman.

Powderhouse's Resnick said there's a number of reasons why he hopes the school committee approves the proposal.

"Right now there are folks that end up leaving the district for either independent or home schooling options or charter schools or in some cases special education out-placement ... they could be brought back to the district through an option like Powderhouse," he said.

All said they think Somerville needs to innovate. And all noted that they were voting specifically on the 61-page innovation school proposal submitted in 2017. The idea for the school first came up in 2012.

"The goal of innovation is absolutely not opposed to equity," said committee member Dan Futrell, who said he will vote no. "We should be innovating and breaking the rules a little bit or ... pushing the limits so that we get better on equity. We should be talking about something different so that we don't continue to get the same results."

He added, "And it matters how we do it."

Most committee members cited the new high school building and a recent grant from the Barr Foundation as ways that the district will be able to innovate.

"I want the ideas of this program to be implemented equitably across the districts rather than isolating them into one new school," said committee member Lee Erica Palmer, noting that she felt "really sad" that the proposal was "not where it needs to be."

No matter what happens with the vote Monday night, each school committee member said they were committed to innovation in the schools. Several cited the Somerville High School's revamped education plan and their faith in Skipper as an innovative leader.

"There's a lot of places that the district has been moving forward in innovative ways," said committee member Laura Pitone. "We have an incredibly innovative superintendent, Mary Skipper — always bringing new ideas, always exploring new things — who is invested a great deal of time in trying to explore this new proposed school."

Still, the vote could be divisive.

"There's going to be people disappointed no matter what we do," Pitone said. She and others noted the countless hours they have spent poring over documents and meeting with constituents.

Related:

Kathleen McNerney Twitter Senior Editor, Edify
Kathleen McNerney is senior editor of Edify.

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