The Innovation Schools initiative was touted as a key component of a 2010 piece of legislation that Governor Deval Patrick signed into law. The initiative served to open the public school systems of Massachusetts up to a new hybrid charter schools.
To become a Hybrid charter school, public schools and school committees must submit an application and meet the requirements before they are granted Innovation School status. Hybrid charter schools are schools that are run by public school districts but have more autonomy than other schools in their respective districts. These schools typically operate with greater autonomy and flexibility with regard to curriculum, staffing, budget, schedule/calendar, professional development and district policies.
“It’s a unique approach to reform because it’s locally overseen and locally initiated. Schools can create custom craft solutions to the issues they face,” said Bridget Rodriguez, the state director of planning and collaboration for the Executive Office of Education.
There are currently 47 such schools in operation. Becket Washington and Berkshire Trail elementary schools, both of the Central Berkshire Regional School District, became the first schools in Berkshire County to be confirmed and pilot themselves as innovation schools this year.
Rodriguez said her office is continuously collecting and receiving feedback from educators and school administrators on their pilots.
“Universally we hear that staff morale is high at innovation schools because they are both required and empowered to be part of the planning process. We’re also hearing reports of really increased family engagement and student engagement in learning. When everyone gets together around a plan it can be very invigorating,” Rodriguez said.
At Berkshire Trail and Becket Washington, feedback from teachers, principals and students seem to echo this.
“The projects we’re developing look different. The children may not see it because they just go with it, but we’re doing a lot more and there are more experts coming into the school throughout the year,” said Berkshire Trail Principal Lorraine Liantonio.
The school has two primary goals. The first is to create a strong, positive school culture using a designated set of staff working norms, school-wide character traits and specific learning targets. The second goal is to integrate an instructional model and program called Expeditionary Learning.
Berkshire Trail’s four chosen character traits are belonging, teamwork, engagement and scholarship. Banners and messages about this are prominently displayed in the school’s entryway and posters in classrooms.
Staff have also been working with representatives from Amherst-based Expeditionary Learning, Flying Cloud Institute of New Marlborough and local sculptor-artist Beckie Kravetz to create field studies and hands-on projects that include instruction in subjects across the curriculum.
Nancy Gokey’s third-grade class partnered with Berkshire Botanical Garden and presented at this year’s Youth Environmental Summit (YES) held at Berkshire Community College — a first for the school.
“It is more work in terms of planning, but I think the kids are learning more with the projects being more hands-on,” said Gokey.
This fall, artist Beckie Kravetz will install a large-scale mural which students created ceramic tiles for this year. The tiles represent students’ study of local history, ecology, culture and economy.
“I hope that kids will become more engaged with the history of where they come from, now that they’ve created a stake