By Marjorie Nesin
---- — In a visit to Gloucester schools Wednesday, state Secretary of Education Matthew Malone stopped by O’Maley Innovation Middle School, admiring the curriculum and speaking about “replicating” the O’Maley education model in more innovation schools he hopes will pop up across the state.
“I like what I see,” Malone said of the school and its curriculum.
Malone is rallying the state Senate to include money for innovation schools in legislation. In the meantime, the new secretary of education, who visited Gloucester in his 14th week at the helm, plans to tour more schools throughout the state. He hopes to increase the state’s number of innovation schools from the existing 47 and create a network between them.
“The whole premise is for us to be innovative, to move away from the boxes that we have as schools, move into the 21st century,” he said Wednesday.
In O’Maley’s first-floor drafting and engineering room, Malone knelt down to check out the bridge-building project a group of students were concentrating on. One student dabbed glue onto thin pieces of wood, clamping them together with paper fasteners to dry, while his teammate used a scissor-like tool to cut more pieces, measured just so.
“We don’t usually do a good enough job of letting kids tinker,” Malone said. “This seems like an excellent example of this kind of learning.”
David Brown, the eighth-grade science teacher leading the students, explained that students first learn to draw with pencil, then he teaches them how to draft and test a design on the computer, and then the teams create their bridges.
“They spend more time on analysis and testing,” Brown said, referring to computer design tests. “It’s a bigger thing than just gluing the pieces together.”
In the final test, and maybe most crucial to students, the teens will place ice cream sundaes beneath their bridge then test their structure’s strength by walking over it, hoping to avoid picking splinters from their whipped cream and hot fudge.
This is O’Maley’s first year as an innovation school, having claimed the title last year, aiming to create a project-based learning environment.
“It’s kind of a happening place,” Superintendent Richard Safier said of O’Maley. “The more work feels like play, we believe, the more kids have an opportunity to learn.”
The tour group — which included state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante; state Rep. Alice Peisch, chairman of the state’s joint committee on education; City Councilor Paul McGeary; School Committee members; and school administrators — continued on to a classroom filled with sixth-graders tapping away at iPad tablets.
The students, who were using the devices to view pictures of Africa and blog about the continent for their geography class, favored the class over their previous school experience. Children raised their hands to tell Malone the iPads simplify research, allow quick access to information and are just plain fun.
Malone asked the sixth-graders who use similar technology at home to raise their hands, and hands shot up, setting the stage for Malone’s point that schooling should align with the familiar technology.
“If young folks are that stimulated with this stuff outside of school, you have to engage them with the technology they’re used to,” Malone said.
Valerie Gilman, a School Committee member, parent of an O’Maley seventh-grader, and one of the people who helped develop O’Maley into an innovation school, told Malone of afterschool programs where kids can work with drafting technology to create house designs and do other in-depth work.
“Kids who have families who aren’t home can stay and do a program. They’re excited, they’re motivated and they’re staying out of trouble,” Gilman said.
Malone paid a visit to Gloucester High School after concluding the O’Maley tour. And, he said he hoped to get back to Gloucester’s downtown soon to enjoy the food and cultural flavor of the city with his family.
“I’m looking at how communities thrive,” he said of Gloucester’s downtown. “It represents the best of what New England is all about.”
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3451, or firstname.lastname@example.org.