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Springfield Renaissance School model for education

Date: 8/23/2011

Aug. 22, 2011

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD — Secretary of Education Paul Reville told the staff and faculty of the Springfield Renaissance School that if they continue “their amazing rate of success,” he could see their educational format becoming a national model.

Reville met with the group on Aug. 17 as part of their preparations for the coming school year.

The school’s principal, Dr. Stephen Mahoney, had asked if Reville could come to Springfield to address the staff.

Mahoney said the school is one of the 160 expeditionary learning schools in the country and has 700 students from grades six through 12.

Mahoney explained an “expeditionary learning school” is one in which the curriculum extends beyond the classroom. He said, for example, that students go to Red Fire Farm in Granby to learn about the formation and significance of river valleys and used the ward representation debate in Springfield to study the Constitution.

Another difference is that eighth graders write a thesis and defend it in order to enter ninth grade, juniors serve an internship and seniors must also present a formal lecture.

Reville said the Renaissance School is a good example of Springfield Public Schools giving parents a choice of educational formats.

Students at Renaissance, like all public school students in the Commonwealth, must pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) and Reville explained that part of the reason for the creation of the MCAS is to ensure that all students, despite whether going to a vocational and technical school, an expeditionary school or a “classical” school, have “a basic suite of skills.”

Renaissance is also considered an “innovation school,” which Mahoney said was the Commonwealth’s answer to allowing public school districts to create their own version of a charter school.

Mahoney said that his school has been given autonomy by the School Committee for developing curricula and for creating assessments. It doesn’t receive a larger budget than other public schools in the district.

He added that having students attend one school for both middle and high school is “a distinctive feature.”

“Next year, I’m going to graduate 100 kids I’ve known since they were 12 years old,” he said.

The school shares space with Van Sickle Middle School and there had been a movement to relocate Renaissance into its own space. Mahoney explained that effort was stalled due to budget issues after a proposal was made to move the school to the Springfield Technical Community College Technology Park in 2010.

He said that spending money on a move for Renaissance is a “tough argument” during a time in which funding is still an issue “as there are other schools in a lot worse shape.”

He explained as well that a perception that Renaissance is a “rich school” is inaccurate. Sixty-five percent of the ethnically diverse student population qualifies for the free lunch program.

Because of the freedom to craft its own curriculum, Mahoney said the school’s staff is considering calendar changes to address how vacations are scheduled in order to address the summer learning gap — a situation in which many students lose educational ground over the summer vacation.

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