The “City of Firsts” Charts a New Path on Turnaround

In 2014, the Springfield Public School district in Massachusetts had tried just about every strategy in the turnaround playbook to improve a set of struggling middle schools, but these efforts failed to generate the desired improvement. In 2015, drawing inspiration from national efforts to infuse schools with enhanced autonomy and accountability, the district voluntarily ceded operational control of six middle school campuses to the newly formed Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership (SEZP), an independent nonprofit charged with overseeing the turnaround effort.

SEZP offers principals freedom from district rules in exchange for increased accountability for results. These changes, along with a new collective bargaining agreement for teachers working in SEZP and new supports for students and principals, represent a marked departure from Springfield’s previous efforts.

This case study profiles SEZP, comparing and contrasting it with conventional turnaround strategies such as district-led turnaround, reconstitution, chartering, and state-initiated turnaround.

Key findings include:

  • SEZP brought together a package of reforms aimed at generating improvement and a new governance model that gives schools much greater freedom to change without needing to ask permission or fear regulatory second-guessing.
  • SEZP offers a “middle way” between other school turnaround strategies: providing more local participation and less controversy compared to either state takeovers or chartering, and committing more deeply to school autonomy, tailored support, and choice of talent compared to conventional district-led turnarounds.
  • Thus far, SEZP has seen less controversy and more goodwill than many other turnaround efforts, but whether the strategy results in improved student outcomes remains to be seen.

This paper is part of our Linking State and Local School Improvement initiative.

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