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City receives $1.25 million NEA grant

Date: 2/10/2010

Feb. 10, 2010.

By Mike Briotta

PRIME Editor

SPRINGFIELD -- Springfield's public schools won a lottery of sorts last Friday morning, beating long odds to win a $1.25 million grant from the NEA Foundation.

The grant money is intended to close student achievement gaps at some of the area's most challenged schools. Springfield was selected from a group of 14,000 competing school districts nationwide.

A million dollar announcements from bona fide celebrity is rare in Springfield, but that was exactly the case when Olympic softball gold-medal winner Jessica Mendoza told an eager crowd of educators that Springfield schools would receive the funding.

The announcement of the grant came Feb. 5 at the newly relocated Thomas M. Balliet School. The NEA initiative is a partnership involving the school district and teachers' union. It aims to transform the schools into local and national models for teaching and learning.

"Good schools, schools that provide real educational opportunity, have a clear focus on teaching and learning," Harriet Sanford, President and CEO of the National Education Association Foundation, said. "Real opportunities for kids grow when the whole educational system keeps its eye on the prize."

She continued, "During the past six months of NEA Foundation-supported planning, Springfield has undertaken bold improvement efforts." Those local efforts, according to Sanford, include increased community partnerships and planning development by principals and teachers.

In the first year of the five-year program, initial funds will be split among six area schools, which are to be determined based on need and readiness.

According to materials handed out at the meeting, the NEA Foundation took into consideration many factors, including a statistic of nearly 79 percent "student poverty" at Springfield Public Schools. Among some 25,000 students in the Springfield system, only about half are predicted to graduate high school -- in stark contrast to a statewide graduation rate of approximately 80 percent.

"Springfield will benefit from an enormous amount of research, expertise and best practices gleaned from the national NEA Foundation initiative," Mendoza said. She is two-time Olympic medal-winner who traveled to the city from California to announce the news.

"The state just passed a major reform act, and there's a lot of anxiety," Paul Reville, Massachusetts Secretary of Education, said. "This is about doing reform with the field, not to the field. We must meet every one of our children where he or she is."

Dr. Alan J. Ingram, Springfield Superintendent of Schools, was also excited about the promised funds. "This will make sure our resources are leveraged in line from the community to the classroom. We're all very excited for the city today. People used to say, 'Why Springfield?' I would say, 'Why not 'Springfield?'"

Tim Collins, head of the Springfield Education Association, noted that the six selected schools should not just be considered pilot schools for this program, but are also collaborations.

Collins praised the grant as helping educators to be "architects of education reform" and said the environment in Springfield is one in which educators and administrators "can disagree passionately with one another, but do it in a productive way." The union chief added that this endeavor is a monumental task.

He continued, "You really haven't had true education reform in this nation over the last 25 or 30 years ... If you care about this community, help us. Let's put our energies into the things we come together on, and we will make it happen."

Others who helped announce the funds included Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, Massachusetts Teachers Association President Anne Wass and Mary Walachy, executive director of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation.

The NEA Foundation is an independent, public charity created in 1969 and sustained by contributions from educators, corporate sponsors and others. The NEA Foundation offers grants and programs to support educators' efforts to close gaps in student achievement and other goals.