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Grant funding to help reform student performance

Date: 11/8/2013

By Carley Dangona

SPRINGFIELD –Springfield’s public schools utilize grants to reform education and community offerings to better meet the needs of students.

2013 marks the fourth year of the “Closing the Achievement Gaps Initiative,” a five-year investment the NEA Foundation has made into the Springfield Union District. Each year, the district is awarded $250,000 to fund the development of its action plan to better its services to best meet the needs of students. There are only three other districts nationwide that receive this grant.

“[The grant enables the district] to complete asset mapping, where we explore what resources the community offers and align them with what’s happening within the schools,” Tim Collins, president of the Springfield Education Association, said. “[The maps] provide an inclusion of a wider range of community partners that deal with our children and their families.

Collins said the nonprofit organizations are able to tailor programs to the needs of the students.

He said the Springfield partnership includes the Springfield Education Association, the Springfield Public Schools, the United Way of Pioneer Valley, the Irene E. & George A. Davis Foundation, the Hampden County Regional Employment Board, the Springfield Housing Authority, the Hasbro Learning Initiative and the Behavioral Health Network Inc. Collins said that one way the grant has assisted the district was to fund summer learning programs for youth.

Collins commented, “Education bureaucrats and politicians have been the architects of education reform. If you listen to the practitioners, we may come up with education reform [that works].” He said that many of the initiatives of the U.S. Department of Education are “beneficial,” but the timeframes to implement them “are a prescription for poor implementation.”

He criticized the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System calling it a “crooked yard stick” that focuses on a fixed target and doesn’t measure growth towards it.

Collins said the district seeks to analyze the barriers students face and to “convince the Commonwealth to give us the support we need” in breaking the obstacles down.

He cited the state’s foundation budget funding formula of Massachusetts General Law, Chapter 70 that was established in 1993 as one example of needed change. “Circumstances have changed dramatically since then. If we truly believe that all children can learn, then we need to look at what policies are blocking the students’ progress,” Collins said.

“We hope to continue the partnerships after the grant is done,” Collins commented. He said that the partnership gives a “collaborative voice” to decisions directly impacting students, by allowing “honest and open dialogue” to take place regarding the well-being of the students.

Over the past year, the NEA Foundation grant has enabled about 270 families in Springfield to become involved in a robust parent-teacher home visit program that averages about two visits per year. The new grant represents a continuation of the NEA Foundation’s support for embedded professional development in the six schools and expansion of parent teacher home visits, according to Edith Wooten, senior vice president of Communications for the NEA Foundation.

Rodolfo Careaga, vice president of Programs for the NEA Foundation, said, “The NEA Foundation believes that unions, school districts and community organizations are a powerful force for improving student performance and a vehicle for systemic reform. This work highlights the importance of engaging not only the teachers who provide instruction, but the principals who lead the buildings, the superintendent who runs the district and the families who send their children to school and the teachers’ union leaders who negotiate the working contract for public school employees. Together these groups are shaping learning environments and opportunities for all students to achieve at a higher level.”

Careaga continued, “The Springfield Closing the Achievement Gaps Initiative seeks to raise academic achievement for all SPS students while eliminating achievement gaps among Latino/Hispanic, African American and low-income students. It is designed to increase instructional effectiveness through embedded professional development (using coaches and mentors and teacher participation in diverse teams involving analysis of student and school climate data) to refine teachers’ instructional practice and develop teacher co-constructed school improvement plans.”

He added, “The Springfield partnership has kept a keen focus on these goals over the course of the last three years, and promises to make great strides towards scaling up of initiative features over the next two years.”