Author: Sarah Lassonde
Director of External Affairs, GreenLight Fund
Matt Spengler doesn't shy away from a challenge. As founder and executive director of the Blueprint Schools Network, he is helping to turn around some of our nation’s lowest performing schools. By forging deep partnerships with school districts and leveraging research-based practices from high-performing charter schools, Blueprint helps plan, implement, and monitor school improvement initiatives.
And he’s getting results. In Denver, where Blueprint has been operating since 2011 in 10 schools, student growth has “outpaced the district” in just two years. All of Blueprint’s schools were in the top 13 in the state for student growth in mathematics, and at Montbello High School, every 2014 graduate was accepted to a two- or four-year college for the first time in the school’s history.
With support from GreenLight, Blueprint is working at two “Level 4” schools - a designation reserved for the state’s most struggling schools - the Elihu Greenwood Leadership Academy (K-5) and the English High School. Blueprint will work as a turnaround partner to implement reforms in partnership with the district with the hope of achieving similar results. We have no doubt he’s up to the challenge.
As GreenLight Boston celebrates the launch of Blueprint this week at our Tenth Annual GreenLight Gala, we sat down with Matt to talk about why he founded Blueprint, and why he’s particularly excited about the opportunity to work in Boston.
Sarah Lassonde: Why did you decide to found Blueprint Schools Network?
Matt Spengler: I started my teaching career under emergency credentials. I walked into a large dysfunctional high school in South Central Los Angeles that was turning teachers over, year after year. I had no training and no experience, but with 10 openings to fill mid-year, the principal looked at my resume and said “when can you start?” Over six years at that school, I saw the dedication and quality of people who were trying to make a difference for kids, and it became clear that our efforts were like putting a fist into a bucket of water. You’d make the effort and pull out and see that nothing had changed.
Since then I've been a principal and part of many educational organizations, and I've seen firsthand the power that a high-quality teacher, a remarkable principal and a high-functioning school can have on kids, both in terms of academic performance, but also on the opportunities they have in the future.
Blueprint was really born out of a desire to create high-quality schools that kids can actually walk to, so that regardless of zip code or where they grow up, they’ll have a high quality system of schools that are in their own neighborhood.
SL: Education – and in particular, the achievement gap – has been at the top of the headlines both in Boston and around the country. Can you talk about how Blueprint is working to address educational equity?
Matt Spengler: I believe schools are the one place where every kid has the opportunity to change and to grow. When you look back across the decades, even though we have individual pockets of success and some schools that are doing well, we’re not seeing this uniformly across the country. We’re not seeing great change across a network of schools. We know that within individual schools it’s possible to change outcomes, it’s possible to achieve equity, but we haven’t seen this at scale.
At Blueprint, our job is to provide a catalyst, so that low-performing schools over short periods of time can sustain promising practices and improve results for kids.
SL: How do you know you’re making a difference?
MS: In Denver, when you walk into Blueprint schools, it’s incredibly powerful and energizing, especially after seeing the schools two years ago (before the turnaround). You see the community that gets formed, because there is a group of caring adults that are invested in students and are using smart strategies to make change.
At Blueprint, we feel the same sense of ownership as the principal, the teachers and the community members feel. So when we see positive change in a school, it’s momentum-building, it’s energizing, and it’s what we want to see in districts across the country.
SL: Why is Boston such an exciting opportunity for Blueprint?
MS: Blueprint Schools is headquartered in Newton, so we’re excited to work in our own backyard. Boston is the birthplace of public education, and we’re currently working with the oldest public high school in the United States. There is a district full of dedicated adults who are working very hard to make change. Boston also has a strong spirit of community service and public service.
However, the needs in Boston are similar to those we see in other parts of the country, of kids who are not developing the same skills and the same enthusiasm for learning that we see in high-performing schools. What we hope to do in Boston is to leverage these assets and bring together effective strategies in concert to help make change in these schools.
To learn more about Blueprint Schools Network, please visit www.blueprintschools.org