Last year, 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 plan for that "innovation school" is up for School Committee vote at a public hearing on June 13.
Turning O'Maley into an innovation school, district officials say, will hold students more accountable for their grades and attendance, expand on project-based learning, offer teachers more autonomy and a say in what goes on in the classroom, and open up funding opportunities for a district on a tight budget.
Teachers at O'Maley approved the innovation school plan by a two-thirds vote last week, their approval marking one of the first sign-offs needed before a district converts a school to a state-recognized "innovation" program.
If the plan receives School Committee approval in two weeks, O'Maley Principal Debra Lucey says the school will open its doors next year as the O'Maley Innovation Middle School.
While students will see some changes in the 2012-2013 school year, Lucey said full conversion will take place over five years. This summer, she said, middle school teachers will develop project-based curriculum grounded in the new federal Common Core standards. Those new lessons will start working their way into the middle school in the latter half of the coming school year.
"It's (about) having higher standards," Lucey said, "and that's what people want."
Lucey said the school will hold students more accountable than the school does at the moment, through higher academic achievement standards and stricter attendance standards.
The school's innovation plan says it will have an increased focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, collaboration between teachers across subject areas, and creating a culture of high expectations for students. It states the school will focus on remediation for math, and create a summer program for struggling students and students who want to go further.
Innovation schools came onto the state education scene after Gov. Deval Patrick signed An Act Relative to the Achievement Gap in 2010. Gloucester's innovation school would be one of 18 established to date across the state, with seven in the works, according to an email from Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokesman J.C. Considine. An innovation school is a public school operating within a school district, with increased autonomy and flexibility.
The schools begin with an initial application from a school district, if the state approves it, then the district develops an innovation plan. If, like Gloucester, a district wants to convert an existing school, the plan first requires at least a two-thirds approval by the unionized teachers, then a vote of the School Committee at a public hearing.
If all of that happens, the school's approved for five years.
Valerie Gilman, a School Committee member and the chairwoman of the committee when the district first started looking at an innovation school program, said the committee took up the idea after the 2010 state program went into effect. It's an idea, she said, committee members thought would bring some improvements to the way the district worked. She said she asked Superintendent Richard Safier to take up the idea last fall.
"It's exciting to me as a member of the School Committee and as a parent of student that's going to be entering the seventh grade next year," Gilman said.
An innovation school, Lucey said, opens the school up for additional funding to extend programs after school and into the summer. It is also eligible for money from foundations and the state to which traditional public schools don't have access.
The school received a $10,000 planning grant, used for teacher stipends and professional development during the planning process. And the district is applying for another grant, worth $25,000 to $50,000, provided the School Committee signs off on it. That grant could be used for buying additional technology for students.
Safier said the innovation school proposal will make some changes to the way the school is governed. It puts into place, he said, an advisory council of teachers and administrators that amplifies the faculty's concerns about curriculum and teaching. The final say, though, is with the principal, he said.
More professional development time and collaboration between teachers will change the way they teach, said O'Maley performing arts teacher Leslie Sellers, in an email.
"Instruction will be evaluated and augment to become more balanced between direct instruction and project-based learning opportunities," Sellers said. "Integrate as much technology as possible and actively involve students utilization of 21st century skills."
With the new program comes some higher standards for students. Lucey said the innovation school proposes stricter attendance and academic standards.
"If students are absent, they'll be held accountable for the work and their grades," Lucey said. "If they don't pass (key) subject areas, they may not be able to move forward a grade."
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.