In January 2010, when Governor Deval Patrick signed multi-tiered education reform legislation into effect, the Innovation Schools initiative was touted as a key component.
Public schools and school committees have the opportunity to submit an application to become so-called Innovation Schools. This process typically involves schools taking on the attitude and focus to become in-district and charter-like schools that will operate with greater autonomy and flexibility with regard to curriculum, staffing, budget, schedule/calendar, professional development and district policies.
"It's a unique approach to reform because it's locally overseen and locally initiated.
There are currently 47 such schools in operation. Becket Washington and Berkshire Trail elementary schools, both of the Central Berkshire Regional School District, became the first schools in Berkshire County to be confirmed and pilot themselves as innovation schools this year.
Rodriguez said her office is continuously collecting and receiving feedback from educators and school administrators on their pilots.
"Universally we hear that staff morale is high at innovation schools because they are both required and empowered to be part of the planning process. We're also hearing reports of really increased family engagement and student engagement in learning. When everyone gets together around a plan it can be very invigorating," Rodriguez said.
At Berkshire Trail and Becket Washington, feedback from teachers, principals and students seem to echo this.
"The projects we're developing look different. The children may not see it because they just go with it, but we're doing a lot more and there are more experts coming into the school throughout the year," said Berkshire Trail Principal Lorraine Liantonio.
The school has two primary goals. The first is to create a strong, positive school culture using a designated set of staff working norms, school-wide character traits and specific learning targets. The second goal is to integrate an instructional model and program called Expeditionary Learning.
Berkshire Trail's four chosen character traits are belonging, teamwork, engagement and scholarship. Banners and messages about this are prominently displayed in the school's entryway and posters in classrooms.
Staff have also been working with representatives from Amherst-based Expeditionary Learning, Flying Cloud Institute of New Marlborough and local sculptor-artist Beckie Kravetz to create field studies and hands-on projects that include instruction in subjects across the curriculum.
Nancy Gokey's third-grade class partnered with Berkshire Botanical Garden and presented at this year's Youth Environmental Summit (YES) held at Berkshire Community College -- a first for the school.
"It is more work in terms of planning, but I think the kids are learning more with the projects being more hands-on," said Gokey.
This fall, artist Beckie Kravetz will install a large-scale mural which students created ceramic tiles for this year. The tiles represent students' study of local history, ecology, culture and economy.
"I hope that kids will become more engaged with the history of where they come from, now that they've created a stake in studying it," Kravetz said.
At Becket Washington Elementary School, Principal Leslie Blake-Davis said students have also expanded their learning of local and state history through the school's innovation goal of writing and improving communication across the curriculum. Additional goals include increasing the integration of technology into instruction, cultivating partnerships with other organizations in the community and enhancing school-family relationships.
Shannon Griffin's fifth-grade classroom is set up as a writing center with an easel next to a colorful carpet where students and the teacher can sit, discuss and share their work.
"I think my writing has improved a lot this year, and that's inspiring," said Ian Graham, 11. "I've learned more skills, like how to use more sophisticated vocabulary that makes my writing a lot juicier," he said.
His classmate Samantha Gladu, also 11, was new to the school this year.
"We've learned a lot about setups for a story, from plot to language. For some reason they make it so fun to write and make you understand how. If you need help, they help you," Gladu said.
Across the grades at Becket Washington, students work with their teachers to learn writing techniques and also to create portfolios of their best work -- a new objective for all grades this year.
In Mary Kay McCloskey's third-grade classroom, students have learned to use iPads and Google Drive, an online platform that, in this case, allows students to create, edit and share work together whether in school or at home.
Fourth-grader Shaun Thornton described the process heading into a combined grades field trip to Plimouth Plantation, which students had to create presentations about: "We had a focus. We wrote up questions before we left and then, we got answers." Thornton used PowerPoint for the first time this year to create a slideshow.
"In terms of the technology, I think it's a really good addition. You get stuff done faster," the 9-year-old said.
In the first-grade, some students started the year just learning how to form letters. They finished the year with a portfolio full of written and illustrated stories.
"I ask my students to write every day, even on their own. We also have writing partners in class. I love this approach and I think it helps a lot," said first-grade teacher Colleen McCasland.
"It makes me happy. I love to write," said first-grader Lucy Swindlehurst.
Becket Washington Principal Leslie Blake-Davis said this new direction as an Innovation School is still in its infancy, but shows signs of having a positive impact on student achievement.
"Our goal here is to preserve the culture of things that are already working well, and to make teachers feel like they own the plan they're implementing," Blake-Davis said. "As for students, I think they feel they have more ownership in their work. We want them to pursue the things they're passionate about and give them the skills to do that."