Wednesday May 16, 2012

BECKET -- Becket Washington School has become the first in Berkshire County to be approved as a so-called Innovation School according to state guidelines. It is the 24th public school in the commonwealth to acquire the status. A schoolwide celebration is planned for June 1.

"It’s very exciting," said Leslie Blake-Davis, who joined the school as principal last summer.

The Becket Washington Innovation School plan received unanimous approval from the Central Berk shire Regional School Committee, and is set to be fully operational at the start of the 2012-13 school year.

A signature component of Gov. Deval Patrick’s Achievement Gap Act of 2010, Innovation Schools are in-district, charter-like public schools that employ inventive strategies and creative approaches to education. Innovation School status creates greater autonomy and flexibility with regard to curriculum, staffing, budget, schedule/calendar, professional development and district policies, while keeping operations and school funding within districts.

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A locally based authorization process is used to determine approval of Innovation School status, based on state guidelines. This involved submitting a prospectus to the district’s superintendent, getting ap proval from a screening committee, developing a plan with an innovation plan committee, and deciding whether to convert the school in the same location under the same name or to develop a new school plan.

Becket Washington’s Inno vation School plan was submitted to the Central Berkshire School Committee after being unanimously approved by the school’s faculty earlier in May.

The plan itself was developed by a planning group that included Blake-Davis, several teachers, parents of Becket Washington students, Central Berkshire School Committee member John Les, and Super intendent William Cameron.

The innovation plan is then submitted to the district’s school committee, which must hold at least one public hearing on the subject. A majority vote of the full school committee is required for approval.

Becket Washington received a $10,000 planning grant from the Next Generation Learning Models Innovation Schools fund granted to the state’s Executive Office of Education from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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The school currently has 117 students in kindergarten through Grade 5. Its Innovation School plan focuses on three areas of innovation: writing across the curriculum, place-based environmental science education and the integration of technology into the curriculum.

For example, Becket Wash ington will continue a partnership with Columbia Univer sity’s Teachers College to train teachers this summer as part of a special schoolwide emphasis on literacy and writing skills. A June 18 seminar is already planned.

The elementary school is also establishing a partnership with the William T. Harris Elem entary School in New York City, which has used Teachers College training and techniques to improve student achievement.

The school is also partnering with Four Winds Nature In stitute of Vermont and Becket-Chimney Corners YMCA Camp to help implement science instruction that emphasizes the physical environment at and near the school to make scientific learning more immediate and relevant to students.

In terms of technology, Becket Washington plans to integrate things like digital white board and iPad technology into instruction and activities.

Upon approval, an Inno vation School is authorized to operate for a period of up to five years, and can be reauthorized by the school committee at the end of each term. It also become eligible to apply for implementation funding from the state.

Blake-Davis said Becket Washington will be submitting an application for a Next Gen eration implementation grant, which is due June 29. Awards typically range from $25,000 to $50,000, with notice of ap proval scheduled for August.

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Another Central Berkshire school, Berkshire Trail in Cum mington, also received a $10,000 Next Generation In novation Schools planning grant, but its plan has not yet gone to vote for approval.

Southern Berkshire Regional School District Superintendent Michael Singleton recently an nounced that an Innovation School application and prospectus for conversion for the New Marlborough Central School in Mill River has been approved by a screening committee consisting of the school committee chairman, superintendent, and union representative.