Educational teamwork

Fly over Fitchburg, Salem, or any of the state’s roughly two dozen Gateway Cities and you’ll get a glimpse of the industrial past in the outlines of old mill buildings. The future will also be in plain view, from the campuses of colleges and regional hospitals, to the stately slate roofs of museums and the clusters of homes near public school buildings. For Gateway Cities across Massachusetts, the future is leveraging large regional institutions—universities, companies, and cultural organizations—to create exceptional learning experiences.

Gateway Cities working to realize this vision must first expand the state’s current education reform dialogue. As a Commonwealth, our approach to the pressing challenges of urban education is overly reliant on the school choice and school turnaround models. Charter schools may help us uncover innovative teaching strategies, but they tell us very little about bringing these new methods to scale. Turnaround schools, by definition, must experience years of struggle to get the resources and attention that come with this designation. These policies might be economical to implement in the short term, but if we fail to complement them with investments in more systemic solutions, it will cost us dearly in the long run.

Together, the state’s 26 officially designated Gateway Cities educate one-quarter of all public school students in Massachusetts. New data show that too many of these students aren’t getting the preparation they need to succeed in the state’s economy: 70 percent of all jobs in Massachusetts will soon require a degree or credential beyond a high school diploma, yet fewer than one in four Gateway City students are completing a post-secondary program.

Massachusetts needs all of these youth to reach their full potential to replace hundreds of thousands of older workers aging out of the labor force. If we don’t do more to prepare them for tomorrow’s economy, the consequences will slowly become apparent as the state’s skilled workforce shrinks, employers decamp, and revenues decline.

The long-term consequences of underperforming Gateway City schools are even more serious when you factor in the fiscal health of these communities. Residential property accounts for about two-thirds of the tax base in most Gateway Cities. Lagging education systems deter middle-class families from purchasing homes in these communities, reducing property values considerably. The longer Massachusetts delays more systemic approaches to school improvement, the more local aid Gateway Cities will require from state taxpayers.

What’s needed is a two-tier education policy: one tier of strategies that close achievement gaps by giving disadvantaged students additional support, and a second tier of strategies that help Gateway Cities leverage their significant educational assets to draw middle-class families back into their neighborhoods. Policies that accomplish both goals simultaneously should rise to the top.

Universal preschool is an example of a policy that could cut both ways. Only about half of Gateway City children attend preschool, which means too many enroll in kindergarten without the early literacy skills today’s rigorous curriculum demands. Teachers are forced to slow instruction, penalizing kids who enter kindergarten well-prepared. Investments in high-quality early education will better position economically integrated Gateway City elementary schools to excel. Moreover, public preschool for three- and four-year-olds would provide one more reason for young middle-class families to give public education in Gateway Cities a try.

As children progress into higher grades, opportunities to take advantage of unique Gateway City institutions to the benefit of families across the economic spectrum emerge. For example, public universities are located in nearly every Gateway City. Offering high school students an early college experience is one of the most effective models to boost college completion for disadvantaged students. But dual enrollment leading to free college credits also has real appeal for middle-class families looking to overcome the escalating cost of higher education.

The concentrations of cultural institutions and employers in Gateway Cities present opportunities to make experiential and work-based learning a larger component of the curriculum. Solid research shows that having internships, participating in student-run enterprises, and taking interdisciplinary courses with real-world projects makes learning more relevant and increases graduation rates among low-income students.

Health care providers in Gateway Cities should be enlisted to provide programs fostering social and emotional development and to steer troubled students to proper care. For low-income students who often experience trauma, these courses and services are critical to prevention and healing. However, in a collaborative age, where interpersonal skills are of increasing value, all students can reap lasting benefit from schools that invest in practices to augment social and emotional growth.

There are also opportunities to exploit more modest policy initiatives that would help high-need Gateway City students, while enriching the educational experience of youth from middle-class families. Dual-language immersion schooling is one such example. For newcomers, dual-language immersion offers a chance to preserve and enhance their native tongue. English-speaking students, meanwhile, get a unique opportunity to master a second language through a true immersion experience. Research shows dual-language schools generate lasting academic and cognitive benefits for all students.

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While there are many such “twofers,” there are some targeted investments that Gateway City schools will require specifically to better serve disadvantaged students in challenging settings. Extended learning time tops this list. It’s become increasingly clear that high-performing, high-poverty schools get results by adding substantial time to their schedules.

Leveraging the assets of our regional cities to build more dynamic community-wide learning systems will require a substantial investment. In the months ahead, Gateway City leaders will work to initiate a dialogue around devoting resources to this more systemic approach to urban education. Working with state leaders, we hope to develop a better understanding of how much these models would cost to deploy at scale and the return on investment Massachusetts taxpayers could expect from them over the long term.

Lisa Wong is the mayor of Fitchburg. Kimberley Driscoll is the mayor of Salem.