Innovation at O’Maley Middle School

In past articles, I have not been an enthusiastic trumpeter of excellence in innovation within K-12 programs. For the most part the majority that I have seen seems anchored around the status quo, and trapped in a race to demonstrate improved student achievement mandated by No Child Left Behind. My teacher friends often bemoan the fact that they are under intense pressure to “teach to the test” because so much is at stake. Some of them feel this approach may create the illusion of achievement, without equipping students with crucial critical thinking and problem solving skills so vital in life.

In my article, Preparing Students for the Age of Innovation, I highlighted some interesting ideas coming out of California. There, educators are designing new approaches to integrate both left and right-brain learning activities across their curriculum.

Today, I want to bring your attention to another interesting effort coming out of Massachusetts. It is being piloted at 18 schools across the state, like O’Maley Middle School. In their articles, My View: O’Maley ‘innovation’ a big step into the future, and City eyes O’Maley innovation, Richard Safier and Steven Fletcher in the Gloucester Times chronicled the emerging new vision for education at this middle school in this small, once thriving seaport community north of Boston.   

Last year, among other things, O’Maley Middle School opened the Birdseye Hammond Science and Engineering Lab.

Now that lab, and the projects that students work on in it, have become a catalyst for steering the Gloucester School District’s only middle school toward being recognized as one of the state’s “innovation schools.”

The idea of project-based learning has caught the attention of the people at Edutopia as well. See this brief video based on work being done by teachers in Seattle.

So the idea is that a school-wide focus on project-based learning will unify significant elements of the curriculum so that different subject areas will reinforce the learning that is taking place in all subjects.

According to Gloucester’s Superintendent of schools, “Students should increasingly see the interrelationships between what they learn in each subject and the topics under investigation. In addition, we are looking at full-scale remediation strategies in mathematics. Attendance policies are also under review in the plan. And, gradually will be looking to incorporate more technology into instruction.”

The idea behind innovation schools is that they will allow for deeper engagement in core subjects (this includes the arts), more enrichment activities, particular instructional themes or areas of focus, and freedom from certain district rules.

Some of the elements of the O’Maley Middle School Innovation Plan include the following:

How teachers teach: One of the major elements of the Innovation Plan calls for establishing more extensive project-based learning across the entire school. Project-based learning calls upon teachers to facilitate active work from students to a greater degree than more traditional, direct methods of instruction.

How the curriculum is directed: The school created two interdisciplinary themes per grade. The different subject areas will, by choice, either create one project, or a series of smaller, related projects that reinforce a central idea or theme that is the basis for each of the interdisciplinary projects.

What’s expected of students: With the concerted effort on project-based learning across the subject areas, the school hopes to develop in students a greater involvement in the work that they do. Projects do not just call upon students to provide a simple correct answer. Rather, they must demonstrate that they can develop and implement an idea or a plan well.

School governance: The innovation plan calls for a Teachers Advisory Committee to actively work alongside administration. This committee will meet periodically to openly discuss and decide upon the important issues that affect the school. Minutes of the meetings will be recorded and shared with the entire faculty so that the net effect will be an increase in policy determination, communication and implementation.

How did this all happen? The credit goes to the State of Massachusetts. The state legislature passed the An Act Relative to the Achievement Gap that Governor Patrick signed in January 2010. It challenged educational innovators in their state to submit proposals to the State, with the expressed purpose of creating new in-district and charter-like schools that can implement creative and inventive strategies, increase student achievement, and reduce achievement gaps while keeping school funding within districts. Sound revolutionary?

These unique schools operate with increased autonomy and flexibility in six key areas: curriculum; budget; school schedule and calendar; staffing (including waivers from or exemptions to collective bargaining agreements); professional development; and school district policies.

In Massachusetts, these Innovation Schools can be established by teachers, school and district administrators, superintendents, union leaders, school committees, parents, parent-teacher organizations, colleges and universities, non-profit community-based organizations, non-profit businesses or corporations . . . basically anyone who has a good idea to bring forward.

Who knows how many of these new innovation schools will prove to build a new educational model for the 21st century? But we have to give credit to the good people of the Bay State who are at least trying something new. The willingness to experiment, (and dare I say – even to fail) is crucial to any innovation-based strategy.

We should all stay tuned.

What is your local school board talking about? Maybe it is time for you to get involved.

Other resources – from the State of Massachusetts Website.


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