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Somerville won $10 million to open a new high school and it went downhill from there

Two MIT friends had a big idea and national and community support. Why did their plan fail?

Alec Resnick (left) and Shaunalynn Duffy at the mixed-use development site that would have housed Powderhouse Studios, the school they hoped to open.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Alec Resnick (left) and Shaunalynn Duffy at the mixed-use development site that would have housed Powderhouse Studios, the school they hoped to open.

ALEC RESNICK AND SHAUNALYNN DUFFY stood in Somerville City Hall at about 6:30 on March 18, a night they hoped would launch the next chapter of their lives. The two had spent nearly seven years designing a new kind of high school meant to address the needs of students who didn’t thrive in a traditional setting. They’d developed a projects-driven curriculum that would give students nearly unprecedented control over what they would learn in a small, supportive environment. Resnick and Duffy had spent countless hours shepherding this school through the political thickets that all new public schools face. Approval by the teachers union, which became the most time-consuming obstacle, had finally come through in early January. Tonight, the School Committee members would cast their votes.

Resnick had reason to be optimistic. Mayor Joseph Curtatone sat on the School Committee, and he had been the one to suggest Resnick and Duffy consider designing a new public school in the first place, back in 2012. Mary Skipper, Somerville schools superintendent, had been instrumental in keeping the approval process moving forward when prospects looked bleak. She wouldn’t be voting, but she planned to offer a recommendation to elected officials. And then there was the $10 million. Resnick and Duffy had won the money in a national competition to finish designing and ultimately open and run their high school, and the pair knew it had helped maintain interest in their idea. Voting against them would mean walking away from a lot of outside funding.

The past two months had been grueling, though. Winning approval from the teachers union had triggered a 60-day sprint of public hearings and School Committee meetings, during which Resnick and Duffy provided thousands of pages of answers to committee questions about everything from what students would learn to how they would eat lunch. The two had not expected to hear so many concerns from School Committee members.

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As they waited outside the council chambers, Skipper arrived and invited them into a nearby office. She got right to the point: She wouldn’t endorse their school. And the mayor’s chief of staff, who had joined them, confirmed that Curtatone would vote accordingly — two crushing blows. Without their support, the school would almost certainly get voted down.

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Resnick and Duffy gathered themselves. They made sure the rest of their team knew what was coming. They told some of the families who had arrived to support them that they might as well go home. And then they walked into the packed chamber for the 7 p.m. School Committee meeting, feeling frustrated and deflated. It took almost two hours of questions and statements from School Committee members to get to the vote. Just after 9 o’clock, Skipper called the roll. Every single committee member voted no.

As recently as January, no one would have predicted such an outcome. But there it was.

POWDERHOUSE STUDIOS, as Resnick and Duffy had conceived it, would barely resemble school. At full enrollment, about 160 high schoolers would take on ambitious, self-directed, interdisciplinary projects focused on computation, narrative, and design — unheard of in a typical high school. Their work would be driven by goals laid out in individualized learning plans geared toward real-world concepts and would be supported by faculty serving more as mentors than as teachers. The school day would last from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the academic calendar would stretch year-round. And this high school would be diverse. The pair planned to ensure it would reflect the diversity of the Somerville Public Schools, where about 42 percent of students are Latino, 10 percent are black, and 43 percent come from low-income households.

The plan pulls from best practices in school innovation from all over the country. But many of the school’s key features are more common in private or charter schools. “We thought our big contribution could be laying out how to do this in the traditional public-school environment,” Resnick says.

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Resnick came to Somerville by way of MIT, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in math in 2008. He explored teacher studies and dabbled in designing educational technology. It was through the MIT social scene that Resnick connected with Duffy, a Somerville native who studied environmental engineering and creative writing. The two discovered a mutual interest in designing engaging learning opportunities for kids, and in 2008 they cofounded Sprout & Co. with another MIT alum who ran an arts and science summer camp. Among other things, the nonprofit helped Somerville youth tackle science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) projects. It was this work that caught Curtatone’s eye in 2012. He was looking for a way to expand educational opportunities in Somerville after the School Committee had rejected a charter school, and he thought Sprout’s project-based work could make a good foundation for a new school.

Curtatone encouraged Resnick and Duffy to take advantage of Massachusetts’s Innovation Schools provision, which offers public schools much of the flexibility charters enjoy without the independent governance that makes charter opponents bristle. Neither had ever run a school, but they began designing what they first called the Somerville STEAM Academy. It became known as Powderhouse Studios when Resnick and Duffy signed on to be the main tenants in a new mixed-use development on the site of the former Powder House Community School. Resnick would be the school director, and Duffy the director of operations.

PowderHouse for Somerville is a renovation and redevelopment of a decommissioned school building into a community-driven, mixed-use project with an intentional focus on the integration of public space & art into its design. (Sebastian Mariscal Studio)
Sebastian Mariscal Studio
A rendering of the planned Powderhouse Studios entrance.

In 2016, Resnick, Duffy, and members of their team began working with seventh- and eighth-graders at Somerville’s Arthur D. Healey School to bring student-led, project-based learning to core classes. That first year, students in Steve Stephano’s seventh-grade math class made moving machines. One student team rigged two record players to arms they designed to draw geometric shapes as the turntables spun. Another group built a cylinder of lights attached to a mirror and programmed the lights to flash and change colors.

Katarina Dvornik, one of Stephano’s seventh-graders this past year, designed and built a cardboard house. It was like “learning beyond the worksheet,” she says, adding that they focused on putting new skills to use rather than simply collecting information. “It really left an impact on me, more so than other lessons did.”

Powderhouse was going to give Resnick and Duffy a chance to help students tackle these types of learning challenges all day, every day, rather than just a few hours per week. But opening their school always presented a significant challenge. All but one of Massachusetts’s 41 existing innovations schools won approval by changing the programming of an existing school rather than starting one from scratch. And Resnick and Duffy’s vision was ambitious. Powderhouse “was fundamentally reconceiving the notion of school and how it was done,” says Paul Reville, former state secretary of education.

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Funders flocked to support the plan — most notably XQ, a national organization bankrolled by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs. Resnick and Duffy won the $10 million grant in September 2016 as an “XQ Super School,” one of 10 nontraditional high school ideas across the United States selected from approximately 700 applicants in a splashy competition.

Community support for the proposal was widespread. Superintendent Skipper had built her career around education innovation, launching a pioneering public high school of her own in Boston called TechBoston Academy. And a growing population of highly educated tech and business professionals in Somerville saw clear value in a school focused on projects and real-world applications for learning. The mayor had signed a letter dated August 14, 2015, that offered unambiguous backing for Resnick and Duffy’s idea.

“I am writing to express my full support for the effort, along with my commitment to see it realized, complete with any and all resources it needs to succeed,” the letter reads.

The Powderhouse team included the letter in their XQ application, and it was one reason the judges thought the outside-the-box school had a shot in Somerville.

Conditions seemed ripe.

XQ: THE SUPER SCHOOL PROJECT challenged the nation to reimagine high school. Russlyn Ali, XQ’s cofounder and CEO, called high schools “dangerously outmoded” and “ill-equipped” to prepare students for today’s world. Philanthropists and education reformers had been sounding the alarm all over the country, arguing that US high schools left students dramatically underprepared for the college education they would need to find high-paying jobs insulated from the threat of automation. 

With the Super School grant in hand, Resnick and Duffy continued working with a committee of district and community representatives to draft their Innovation School Plan. The committee approved the plan in March 2017, with the school’s opening date set for fall 2019, but the teachers union negotiations consumed almost two full years. When the pair presented their plan to the School Committee in January, there was still significantly more to be figured out; in particular, how such a radically different school structure would fit into a district with existing operating procedures for everything from buying instructional materials to teaching state standards.

Skipper had long planned to convene working groups composed of both Powderhouse and central office employees to make decisions about curriculum alignment, school discipline, special education services, supports for immigrant students learning English, and the ways that Powderhouse’s innovations might conceivably filter back to the rest of the district — Skipper’s top priority. But she didn’t want to invest additional staff time on this planning until union negotiations wrapped up. By then, though, it seemed too late. When School Committee members considered the proposal last winter, they had deep concerns about how much was left to decide. Member Andre Green worried that district leadership wouldn’t have the time or energy to commit to Powderhouse. “There is very little excess capacity in our system,” Green said at the February 25 meeting.

During the 60-day deliberation process, Skipper maintained a dispassionate distance. When School Committee members asked for her thoughts on the proposal, she demurred, saying she was still weighing the merits herself. Resnick says he asked Skipper in February if she was on board. When she told him she wasn’t sure, his long-held optimism began to crack.

Finances had become an insurmountable sticking point for Skipper and School Committee members, even with $10 million pledged from XQ. State law mandates that innovation schools must receive the same amount per pupil as the district’s average, which in Somerville was roughly $17,000 per student. Somerville’s comprehensive high school, which enrolls about 1,250 students, didn’t seem as if it could afford to lose 160 students to the new school. Costs for building maintenance, teachers, and counselors would change very little, but the school would have millions less to cover them.

To Resnick and Duffy, those concerns were baffling. The school was always going to cost money. But after the Powderhouse concept won the XQ prize, expectations changed. Many fans of Powderhouse in the district and the community — including parents, administrators, and current and former School Committee members — had the impression that the grant would mean no initial cost to the district at all. Intuitively, $10 million sounds like enough to run a small school for several years. But XQ expected the district to have skin in the game, and Resnick and Duffy were formulating their budget with the understanding that state law required the district to pass along the per-pupil funding for every student they enrolled. Powderhouse Studios would use the XQ money to hire extra teachers, create a staff development program, and build a learning management system that could track students’ project work and progress toward graduation. By the time of the School Committee vote, Resnick and Duffy had already spent almost $1 million of the grant on salaries, legal counsel, and a project manager at the school construction site.

07/25/2019 SOMERVILLE, MA Somerville Superintendent of Schools, Mary Skipper (cq) speaks with students participating in The Calculus Project (cq) at East Somerville Community School. Students L-R Edrick Pacheco (cq) 15, Nathalya C. Salmeron (cq) 15, and Diana Posada (cq) 15. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
Somerville Superintendent Mary Skipper (second from right) speaks with students at East Somerville Community School.

Skipper knew the XQ grant was for Powderhouse, not for the district, but she continued to hope it would at least cushion the district’s expenses, particularly in the first few years. The superintendent says she only found out the XQ grant wouldn’t cover any portion of the district’s per-pupil funding costs this past January. Resnick and Duffy maintain they made the funding implications for the district clear to her much earlier, but they didn’t finalize Powderhouse’s budget in negotiations with the district and XQ until mid-February.

That budget set the district’s costs at $690,000 for the year Powderhouse would welcome its first cohort of 40 students, and $3.2 million for when the school had all four cohorts, about 160 students, enrolled. That cost is the district’s per-pupil funding amount multiplied by the number of students enrolled each year, but longtime supporters balked — including Skipper.

In Somerville, district leaders had made it a priority to close significant performance gaps between students from wealthy and poor families, students with and without disabilities, students who do and do not speak English, and students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Throughout the deliberations, they wondered how Powderhouse would fit into this commitment. The school would have a lower student-to-teacher ratio than other schools in the district. And, at least to start, it would spend more per pupil because overstaffing in a school’s first few years is inevitable. The XQ grant would cover the difference, but it still forced School Committee members to pause.

Elected officials said the disparate spending might be worthwhile if it served students with the highest needs, but they worried Powderhouse might draw a predominantly wealthy and white group of students who do just fine at Somerville High School. “It’s the last thing that we are intending to do, to take resources from the community and reallocate them to wealthy families,” Resnick told School Committee members at their February 25 meeting. He pointed out that much of the diversity they sought was already reflected among the more than 150 students who had signed up in advance for the Powderhouse lottery.

Resnick and Duffy had consulted with civil rights lawyers in creating an enrollment algorithm that would guarantee them a school population that mirrored the district’s. School Committee members were faced with conflicting legal advice, however, when the school district’s attorney questioned its legality. School Committee members also questioned the supports for students still learning English and others with special needs. Resnick and Duffy argued that individualized learning plans for each child and a case-management style of tracking student progress were ideally suited to meeting these needs. But committee chair Carrie Normand said the special education plan read like a literature review. “They have dug deep and they have learned so much and I respect that, but there’s a difference between reading the literature and having the day-to-day experience to actually implement it,” she says.

Resnick and Duffy struggled to persuade district officials they could turn a visionary plan into a functional school. Skipper, too, had concerns about their limited experience, and two years earlier had required them to add another administrator to their staffing plan. Resnick, she said, could not lead Powderhouse alone. He would need a codirector with previous experience opening and running a new school — an added expense.

Somerville Public Schools has $73 million budgeted for the 2019-20 school year. At full enrollment, Powderhouse would cost less than 5 percent of that total, and the city increases the district’s budget by more than 5 percent each year. But Skipper told School Committee members on the night of the vote that opening the new school would force the district to cut at least 20 teacher or counselor positions and to eliminate most before- and after-school programs districtwide. “As someone who believes in and has championed the power of new ideas my whole career, it pains me deeply to not be able to solve this problem,” she said. “In this case, the investment to create something that may only add an unknown amount of benefit to 2 to 3 percent of students, at the expense of the remaining 97 to 98 percent, is one I cannot recommend making at this time.”

That equity concern was repeated again and again by committee members explaining their votes.

“This is not a vote against . . . the ideas or the innovation in the proposal,” the mayor said, “but a vote for equity.” He said hearing School Committee members’ concerns throughout the deliberation process made him think about the proposal in new ways. “We have committed to evaluating all new investments through an equity lens,” he said. Since his “full support” in 2015, the calculus had changed. “We’re going to invest in things that have the broadest impact and support those with the greatest needs,” Curtatone said.

Teachers, students, parents, and involved community members spoke up in support of Powderhouse during the public meetings, but it didn’t tip the scales. Stephano, the Healey School teacher, told committee members at the January 23 public hearing that students would stay after school every day, unsolicited, to do extra work. And he praised the Powderhouse educators, saying they understood how to individualize instruction for each student. “The kids who were hard to motivate needed no motivation to work with these guys,” he said.

Healey School student Katarina Dvornik was so inspired that she stood up and voiced her support for the Powderhouse proposal at the February 6 hearing. She wanted to attend Powderhouse for high school and was disheartened to learn of the School Committee’s vote. “It was like a hope getting crushed,” Dvornik says.

ALMOST FIVE MONTHS have passed since the School Committee voted down the proposal.

Resnick and Duffy have tried to figure out what happened and how they could have avoided it. As they’ve watched construction progress on the development that was supposed to house Powderhouse this fall, they’ve replayed the years of work that got them here, wondering how much blame they should shoulder.

Theories vary. Were Resnick and Duffy hung out to dry by Skipper? Did they lack the political savvy needed to cultivate committee support, or the leadership and communication skills necessary to present something worthy of approval? To Duffy, the process and its outcome look different to people all over the community. And she can’t bring herself to reject anyone’s assessment. “It’s kind of all true. I feel like that’s one of the things that’s challenging to me,” she says.

There may still be a future for their idea. Resnick and Duffy are pondering less costly variations on the Powderhouse design. Skipper insists the idea isn’t dead. She says innovation tends to find ways to resurrect and live on. And the mayor says the whole process is an example of experiential learning. “It’s not failure,” Curtatone says. “It’s all steps in innovation.”

The proposal is certainly derailed, though. It’s not clear whether another round of negotiations would have a different outcome, and the uncertainty has both the Powderhouse team and XQ trying to figure out what is worth their time and money.

Ali, the CEO of XQ, says there is precedent for using the grant in a different way than originally proposed. But she says the Powderhouse team won the grant in the first place because it seemed they had the backing of school officials, the mayor, and community members. Now she wonders what support is left to salvage. She’s not exactly optimistic, but she is willing to give it more time. Meanwhile, the remaining Super School grant money stays with XQ.

“If we saw signs that it would come to fruition, we’d be right there partnering,” she says. “It is a beautiful vision.”

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer at The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Send comments to magazine@globe.com