Will Somerville have a new school?

This is the question the Somerville School Committee has been considering and is scheduled to vote on Monday March 18th (rescheduled from March 4th snow cancelation): Will the Somerville Public Schools (SPS) adopt the proposed Powderhouse Studios as an in-district Innovation School? An Innovation School is a Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) designation that allows for the creation of in-district public schools (different from a Charter School) that employ creative approaches and differing practices from district or DESE mandates. This January the School Committee (SC) initiated the last component of the DESE defined authorization process for the proposed school initiated approximately five years ago. The SC is very interested in community opinion on this decision, and here I share my best understanding of the opportunity, as well as what I will be considering as a Somerville SC Member when I make my vote on March 18th.

For those not familiar with the proposed Innovation School for SPS, below is a brief overview:

  • Powderhouse Studios is a proposed Innovation School that is being considered by the SC. The proposed school was initiated by an outside non-profit (“the Applicant”). SPS had representation on the Innovation Committee that developed the initial plan, facilitated the process for the Somerville Teachers Union to consider the plan, and is collaborating with the Applicant more significantly since early January to support the further development of the proposal for SC consideration.
  • The proposed school is designed to serve up to 160 students, 13 years old - high school, after a four-year ramp-up period. It would provide an alternative to attending grades 7-12 in our current public schools. Some of the differing elements include: a later start time, a longer school day, a year-round calendar, significant real-world projects (versus traditional subjects), and non-standard budgeting, curriculum, and staffing.
  • The plan has the proposed school located in the former Powderhouse School site as one of several tenants in a mixed-use development project. It is not planned to be located in a City owned facility, therefore the draft financial model includes rent and build-out expenses.
  • A $10 M grant was awarded by XQ to the Applicant, not to SPS or the City of Somerville. How the Grant money can be utilized is still under discussion between the Applicant, the SPS and the Grantor. The full $10 M cannot be allocated to offset district expenses. Nearly $1 M of the Grant money has been spent by the Applicant since awarded by XQ two years ago.
  • Since early January, the School Committee has hosted a public process to consider the proposed school, which has included: two Public Hearings, fourteen SC Office Hour sessions, the receipt of many emails, and presentations/discussion in all January and February SC Regular Meetings with the opportunity for Public Comment at the beginning of those meetings. The last opportunity for Public Comment on the proposed school is March 18th, 7 pm, at Somerville City Hall.

The adoption of the proposed school is not a “done deal” as several people have assumed. There is a vote scheduled by the SC on March 18th on whether or not to adopt the proposed school.

If you want to learn more, visit the SPS web page which details the process and has links to a great deal of information on the proposed school: http://www.somerville.k12.ma.us/district-leadership/somerville-school-committee/powderhouse-studios-proposal

During Office Hours over the last weeks, in emails and at the two Public Hearings, I have heard from those excited by the proposed school and creative model, those who expressed a strong belief in the Applicant and those considering the proposed school for their children, if it is adopted. I have heard from constituents who are questioning how the adoption would impact the rest of the district (financially and initiative wise) and if adoption will address the SPS goals and challenges, specifically the achievement gap. Although discussed, these questions have not been answered. The financial plan has not been finalized and there is less than one week until the scheduled SC vote.

The draft financial plan includes, over the next five years, a $10.7 M investment by the Somerville Public Schools and an additional $1.4 M investment by the City of Somerville. This School District investment is based on average per pupil spending. In short, this money would be spent by the district if the proposed school is adopted or not, however if the school is adopted the funds would be shifted from other schools and initiatives to the proposed school. The financial plan assumes full enrollment to cover significant fixed costs which may not be realistic in an urban district with demonstrated high annual student mobility. If the school is not fully enrolled, the planned average per pupil allocation from the district would be reduced (by average per pupil spending of students not enrolled) and the school would not have expected money to cover the expenses outlined in the financial plan which is not accounted for. Additionally, the draft financial plan assumes a reimbursement of $900 K over five years from the Grant for district staff time to support the proposed school design and launch, which has not been agreed upon to date by the Grantor. If not covered by the Grant or the allocated average per pupil spending, SPS would assume any additional expense from the district budget.

I cannot speak for my colleagues, but I plan on making my final decision when the SC completes deliberation on March 18th considering thoughts from my SC colleagues and the recommendation from Superintendent Skipper. I can share the four primary considerations I will base my decision on: the educational design of the school, the viability of the plan (including the financials), the potential impact to the district, and how adoption would support SPS goals and priorities. The impact to the district includes the potential to explore innovative ideas that can be adopted in the district based on the experience with the proposed school. It also considers how a diversion of both funds and resources from other schools, initiatives or opportunities due to the investment in the proposed school, will impact our district.

The proposed school is exciting, complex and a radical change from a traditional school. The number of unknowns, outstanding questions and concerns is large. Less than one week before the SC vote, the financial model is a draft which has yet to demonstrate that the proposed school is fiscally responsible or predict the likely impact to the district. Additionally, based on the complexity of the proposed school, I am concerned the amount of work necessary to realize the vision will distract from current district-wide innovation efforts and goal achievement. I look forward to exploring these concerns and questions further over the next several days to inform my analysis and decision, in the context of serving the best interests all students in the Somerville Public Schools.

The SPS staff have invested a great deal in refining the plan for the proposed school throughout this community process. I am impressed by the efforts of my SC colleagues, with their various skills and experience in education and business, to understand and give sincere consideration to the proposed school as well as request and review input from the community. I extend my thanks to the Somerville community, SPS staff, my colleagues and the Applicant for their efforts.

If you have an opinion about whether or not Somerville Public Schools should adopt the proposed school, Powderhouse Studios, or questions, please contact the Somerville School Committee (email or phone can be found on the SPS website) or join the School Committee at City Hall for Public Comment at 7 pm on Monday March 18th.

Laura Pitone, Somerville School Committee Representative, Ward 5

[email protected]

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