- A handful of formerly failing schools in Springfield, MA have formed a semi-autonomous "empowerment zone," giving them more freedom to set curriculum and run their budgets.
- The schools are still part of the district, but are run by a nonprofit, called Empowering Schools. Each has a special focus on increasing ELA and math scores, and the schools are already showing slight gains in these areas.
- The state is now looking at the empowerment zones as a possible model for expansion to other struggling districts. Empowering Schools is also exploring working with schools in Colorado.
Turning around failing schools is no easy feat, and in recent years there has been something of a trend towards trying new models that take a page out of the charter school movement, without replicating that model exactly, in an effort to stave off state takeovers.
In Memphis, federal grants turned some of the worst schools in the state into so-called Innovation Zones, with the stated goal of jumping from the bottom 5% to the top 25% of all schools within only a handful of years. The effort there outpaced state-led takeovers, and gave the Innovation Zone schools more charter-like control over hiring, curriculum, and length of school day (which they increased). But beyond federal grants, funding for such dramatic transformations is difficult to come by, and experts caution that planning for a financial, operational, and sustainable future is a must.