December 20, 2018
SPRINGFIELD -- On a recent morning at Springfield Prep Charter School, kindergarten students were busy solving a "story problem" aimed at teaching them subtraction.
The question: "If you have 10 dinner napkins, but you only need enough for 7 guests, how many napkins do you take away?"
The children were given 10 plastic cubes representing the napkins and then asked to use the cubes to find out how many napkins were needed for the guests.
"The exercise was designed to help the children learn conceptually," said Bill Spirer, executive director of the 4-year-old college prep school. The lesson helps students visualize the problem and learn the concept before writing it on paper, he explained.
In a fourth-grade classroom, students -- or scholars, as they are called here -- were reading "Birchbark House," a book about a Native American girl that is one in a series set in 1847 in a place near present-day Lake Superior.
English language arts teacher Melanie Berube asked the students to find a passage in the book that illustrated figurative language.
Matthew Rosario Velez's hand went up and he read a sentence about the character "being open to the world." What the phrase meant, he said, was that the girl was ready to experience her world.
During a Thanksgiving week tour of the school's temporary home in the former Heritage Academy building, Spirer said exciting, challenging and interactive lessons are one of the reasons Springfield Prep third-graders made such a strong showing the first time they tackled the MCAS test.
The 270 students at the K-4 charter school, who mirror the demographics of the city's traditional public schools, "were among the highest performing 3rd graders in Massachusetts on the MCAS among 3rd grade peers, closing historic economic gaps," Spirer said.
The school was in the top 5 percent in third-grade math among Massachusetts school districts -- with 77 percent of students meeting or exceeding expectations, Spirer said. And it was in the top 15 percent for English language arts -- with 72 percent of its third-grade students meeting or exceeding expectations, he said.
There are many reasons for the schools' success, Spirer said.
"We follow a small-school model," he said, adding that each classroom of about 27 students has two teachers. "The teachers know the kids well and that helps kids do well," he said.
The school's curriculum meets the same standards required of all Massachusetts schools, he said, adding that the curriculum for every subject "is modified to make sure it is rigorous and exciting."
Springfield Prep's school day is about an hour to an hour and a half day longer than at traditional public schools.
The school's focus on preparing for college is evident throughout the 20,000-square-foot building. Each classroom is named after a college, with banners from Yale, Western New England University and many others gracing the doorways. Every Friday, the school holds a meeting of the entire student body where good work gets recognition and a sense of collective purpose is celebrated.
As its students' academic success continues, one of Springfield Prep's next challenges is to find a permanent home for what will be a K-8 school serving 486 students by 2023.
Initially, Springfield Prep, which opened in 2015, operated out of available classroom space at Veritas Preparatory Charter School on Pine Street. A plan to establish a permanent home in the Melha Shrine building on Fort Pleasant Street failed after hitting too many snags to overcome.
For now, the former Jewish day school building across from the Jewish Community Center is a cozy fit for Springfield Prep as it continues its search for a permanent home in Springfield, Spirer said.
"Half of the building is in Springfield and half is in Longmeadow, but our mailing address is 594 Converse St. in Longmeadow," Spirer said.
Spirer, who previously handled child welfare cases as a lawyer in New York City, said a stint as a Teach for America member made him realize that his real calling was in education.
He seized the opportunity to lead a charter school in Springfield. "I believe in small cities," he said. "There is so much potential here."
Staff retention has been strong, Spirer said. "We emphasize that this is a great place to teach and we give teachers they need to do their best," he said.
That means frequent observations and coaching sessions to help teachers continuously improve, he said.
The school, which has its own board of directors, also emphasizes family engagement, he said. "That begins with the application process," Spirer said.
As the school prepares to add a fifth grade next August, Spirer said Springfield Prep is continuing its outreach work.
"We work hard to let Springfield parents know this is an option," he said.
Students are drawn from the Forest Park, South End, North End and Mason Square and neighborhoods throughout the city. About half of the students take school buses, while the others are driven by parents or others.
Like other public charter schools, Springfield Prep receives funding from Springfield Public Schools for each city child enrolled.
Students are chosen from a random lottery. Next year, Springfield Prep will accept another 54 students. The lottery drawing will be March 8 at the school. Currently there are 300 students on the waiting list for K-4 slots.