On March 18, 2019, the school committee voted unanimously to not approve the Powderhouse Studios innovation school proposal. Please read this joint statement from Mayor Curtatone, School Committee Chair Normand, and Superintendent Skipper regarding the vote.

On January 7, 2019, the Somerville Teachers Association (STA) ratified an agreement advancing the authorization of Powderhouse Studios (PHS), a proposed new district Innovation School. The next step in the Innovation School approval process gives the School Committee no more than 60 days to deliberate and vote on the school’s plan. Over the next two months, Somerville School Committee will engage in public deliberation culminating in a vote on March 4, 2019 on whether to authorize PHS as a district school. The following document offers a complete overview of the Powderhouse Studios proposal:

Powderhouse Studios Design Overview

Powderhouse Studios Design Overview Presentation - January 14, 2019

Powderhouse Studios Public Hearing #1 Presentation - January 23, 2019

Powderhouse Studios Public Hearing #1 Video Recording - January 23, 2019

Powderhouse Studios Curriculum & Staffing Document - January 27, 2019

Powderhouse Studios Public Hearing #2 Presentation - February 6, 2019

Powderhouse Studios Public Hearing #2 Video Recording - February 6, 2019

Powderhouse Studios School Committee Documents Request - February 15, 2019

Powderhouse Studios School Committee Document Response - February 22, 2019

Powderhouse Studios Innovation Plan - March 9, 2017


1. How can I learn more about Powderhouse Studios, and how can I share my perspective on whether School Committee should authorize a new district Innovation School?

Please read through the materials on this page and know that we want to hear from you. Over the next two months, School Committee will hold two public hearings, multiple office hours, listen to public comment at the start of each full School Committee meeting, and encourage direct constituent contact as much as possible. Please review the following meeting schedule at which the authorization of Powderhouse Studios will be discussed. We encourage all interested residents to attend and/or reach out directly to School Committee members. Member contact information is available here

Date Time Meeting Location
1/14/2019 7:00pm Regular School Committee Meeting: Powderhouse Studios Presentation City Hall Chambers (93 Highland Ave.)
1/16/2019 7:00pm School Committee Long Range Planning Meeting Edgerly Building Conference Room (8 Bonair St., 2nd floor)
1/23/2019 6:00pm Powderhouse Studios Public Hearing 1 East Somerville Community School (50 Cross St.)
1/26-2/10/2019 Varied School Committee Office Hours - Powderhouse Studios & District Budget Varies (Office Hours Schedule)
1/28/2019 7:00pm Regular School Committee Meeting: Powderhouse Studios Deliberation City Hall Chambers (93 Highland Ave.)
2/4/2019 7:00pm Regular School Committee Meeting: Powderhouse Studios Deliberation City Hall Chambers (93 Highland Ave.)
2/6/2019 6:00pm Powderhouse Studios Public Hearing 2 West Somerville Neighborhood School (177 Powder House Blvd.)
2/12/2019 CANCELED Powderhouse Studios Community Presentation Winter Hill Community Innovation School (115 Sycamore St.)
2/13/2019 7:00pm School Committee Long Range Planning Meeting Edgerly Building Conference Room (8 Bonair St.)
2/25/2019 7:00pm Regular School Committee Meeting: Powderhouse Studios Deliberation City Hall Chambers (93 Highland Ave.)
3/4/2019 CANCELED due to snowstorm; vote moved to next regular SC meeting on March 18th Regular School Committee Meeting: Powderhouse Studios Deliberation and Vote City Hall Chambers (93 Highland Ave.)
3/18/2019 7:00pm Regular School Committee Meeting: Powderhouse Studios Deliberation and Vote City Hall Chambers (93 Highland Ave.)

2.  What is Powderhouse Studios expected to cost? What is the estimated City/District contribution? And what is the estimated XQ contribution?

The detailed Powderhouse Studios budget, as of February 13, estimates that the school would cost $13.5 million in the first four years and approximately $3.5 million each year after the XQ award has expired. Under this model, the City/District contribution in the first four years would be approximately $8.1 million, and $3.7 million each year thereafter.  

During the early years, Powderhouse Studios would be overstaffed and this extra staffing would be covered by part of the $10 million XQ award. The Powderhouse budget estimates this portion to be approximately $5.6 million over the first four years. How the remainder of the award would be used is still under discussion between the District, Powderhouse, and XQ.

The Powderhouse budget overview, as of February 13, is available here.

PHS Draft Budget 021319 II.jpg

3. What is the history of Powderhouse Studios, and how was the school awarded a $10 million grant?

In 2012, the local nonprofit Sprout & Co. put together a prospectus for a district Innovation School called "the Somerville STEAM Academy". Then-Superintendent Tony Pierantozzi, Somerville Teachers Association President Jackie Lawrence, and then-School Committee Chair Paul Bockelman approved the prospectus in 2012. The school’s first Innovation Plan was then approved in 2014.

In 2016, ten winners of the XQ Super School Project from across the United States were announced. Each winning project would receive $10 million over the next 5 years to implement their proposed project. Among the winning projects was Somerville’s Powderhouse Studios, a project that proposes a new district Innovation School that would ultimately serve approximately 160 middle grades/high school students.

The XQ Super School Project was a national competition encouraging teams to “rethink high school” and submit proposals that proposed new and innovative ways in which to engage young adults as the drivers of their educational experience and challenge students to be critical thinkers. The competition was open to anyone interested in rethinking the high school educational experience and willing to contribute thoughts, ideas, and energy to the process. Learn more about the Powderhouse Studios announcement at: https://xqsuperschool.org/xq-schools/powderhouse.

4. Where does the authorization of Powderhouse Studios stand now?

Somerville Public Schools and the Somerville Teachers’ Association (STA) recently reached a tentative agreement about Powderhouse Studios. As a first step in authorizing the school, STA members voted to ratify this agreement on January 7, 2019. The next step in the state-mandated Innovation School approval process gives the School Committee no more than 60 days to deliberate and vote on the plan. Over the next two months, Somerville School Committee will engage in public deliberation before a March 4thvote on whether to authorize the school. If approved by School Committee, Powderhouse Studios plans to open in Fall 2019. *Please note that the School Committee meeting on March 4th was canceled due to a snowstorm, and the vote was moved to the following regular School Committee Meeting, scheduled for March 18th.

5. How would Powderhouse Studios be designed and where would it be located?

If approved, Powderhouse Studios would open as a year-round district Innovation School in Fall 2019 with a first cohort of up to 40 students (ages 13 to 15). The school would add small cohorts of students each subsequent year. PHS would be located at the old Powderhouse Community School building, and the $10 million award would offset significant startup and design costs of launching the school. Learn more about the proposed site renovation: http://www.markacommunities.com/powderhouse/.

Powderhouse's weighted enrollment lottery will ensure the school’s population mirrors the socioeconomic, demographic, and academic profile of the overall district. As proposed, PHS staff will work 220 days per year 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. and youth will attend school 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Teachers will work in small, cross-functional teams supporting mixed-age cohorts of students throughout their time at the school.

6. What grades will Powderhouse Studios serve?

Powderhouse Studios will not have grade levels, but is expected to serve students that would traditionally fall in upper middle school through high school.

7. What is an in-district Innovation School?

An in-district Innovation School is a district school that has received approval to operate with increased autonomy and flexibility in up to six areas. The idea is that the increased autonomy will provide schools the opportunity to implement creative and inventive strategies to increase student achievement and reduce achievement gaps while keeping school funding within the district. The six areas in which an in-district Innovation School can secure autonomy are: curriculum, budget, school schedule and calendar, staffing (which can include waivers from or exemptions to collective bargaining agreements), professional development, and school district policies. An Innovation School can operate as a new school (as was proposed by Powderhouse Studios), a conversion school (as in the case of the Winter Hill Community Innovation School), or an academy (a school-within-a-school).

8. What is the difference between an Innovation School and a Charter School?

Please see this document for a detailed comparison between an Innovation School, Pilot School, Horace Mann Charter School, and a Commonwealth Charter School.

9. How does a school become an Innovation School?

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has established a four-step authorization process for Innovation Schools.

  • An eligible applicant must submit an initial prospectus to the district. Two-thirds approval of the prospectus from a screening committee that includes the superintendent or a designee, a school committee member or a designee, and a representative from the teachers’ union must be obtained in order for the authorization process to move forward.
  • An innovation plan committee that includes up to 11 school, district, and community representatives develops the innovation plan.
  • Upon completion of the innovation plan, specific steps are required based on the type of Innovation School being proposed. A new school requires negotiations among the applicant, teachers’ union, and superintendent if the plan includes proposed waivers from or modifications to the collective bargaining agreement.
  • The innovation plan is submitted to the School Committee for approval. The School Committee must hold at least one public hearing prior to voting on the plan. A majority vote of the school committee is required for approval.

Upon approval, the Innovation School is authorized for a period of up to five years, and can be reauthorized by the school committee at the end of each term. The Superintendent will work with the school committee to evaluate the school in accordance with the annual measurable goals included in the innovation plan. In addition, the Superintendent can work with the operator of the Innovation School and the school committee to revise the plan as necessary. Any revisions that propose changes to the collective bargaining agreement require a two-thirds vote of approval from the teachers in the Innovation School.

10. Will the community have an opportunity to provide input or vote on the new school?

Step 4 of the Innovation Plan Authorization Process, as noted in Question #8 above, includes the School Committee holding at least one public hearing prior to the School Committee voting on the plan. Additionally, the Powderhouse Studios team has conducted numerous community outreach efforts throughout the planning process since their submission of the original prospectus. The community will have various opportunities to provide input to the School Committee, as detailed in #1 above, before the School Committee votes on the proposal.

11. Has the school been approved by the School Committee?

No. Powderhouse Studios is currently at Step 4 of the Innovation Plan Authorization Process outlined in Question #3 above. The school has not yet been formally approved by the School Committee. School Committee will hold two public hearings, multiple office hours, listen to public comment at the start of each full School Committee meeting, and encourage direct constituent contact.

12. When would Powderhouse Studios open?

If approved by School Committee, Powderhouse Studios plans to open in Fall 2019 with up to 40 students (ages 13 to 15) and add a new group of up to 40 Somerville students in each of the following three years.

13. Will Powderhouse Studios be under the oversight of the existing School Committee or will the school have its own board of directors?

The district’s School Committee has oversight authority over an in-district Innovation School. However, an Innovation School can secure a number of autonomies as noted in Question #6 above, including autonomy from School Committee Policies. Powderhouse Studios has requested a number of autonomies including autonomy from some School Committee Policies. Innovation Schools can also establish a Governing Board separate from the School Committee to help guide the school’s day-to-day operations. The Winter Hill Community Innovation School currently operates under a Governing Board school model.

14. Is the old Powder House Community School being re-opened as Powderhouse Studios?

No. The old Powder House Community School site is being renovated into a multi-use facility. Powderhouse Studios would be an entirely new school that would reside within the newly renovated facility.

15. Is the Powderhouse Studios XQ award tied in to the SHS Building Project?

No. The Somerville High School Building Project is an entirely separate project to replace the existing Somerville High School facility with one that will support 21st century learning and that will best prepare students for college and career success. Learn more about the SHS Building Project at www.somervillema.gov/highschool.

The following questions have been asked by the general public or School Committee members. Answers have been written by the Powderhouse Studios team and reviewed by the district. This page will be updated as additional questions are asked and answers are provided. Last updated February 13, 2019.

Budget and Finance

Once the XQ grant runs out, how will PHS be sustained financially? What are the possible additional revenues in the budget?

The District and applicant are working together to determine sustainability paths after the XQ funding runs out. In the short term, Powderhouse's outside fundraising from organizations like XQ, the Barr Foundation, and others can offset the startup and design costs of the school opening.  Powderhouse is looking at shifts to the school staffing model that would allow it to be sustainable on its per capita from the district, including possible augmentation by state programs like Chapter 74 and the Innovation Career Pathways initiative.

Would Powderhouse Studios receive the same amount per student per school year as other SPS schools or would the amount be prorated to reflect the longer school year?

The Innovation School legislation mandates that Innovation Schools receive the same per capita as other district schools; PHS would receive the same amount from the district as other SPS schools. Powderhouse teachers would be compensated for working a longer school year. This additional cost would be covered by the XQ award in the first four years of the school’s operation. As Somerville’s conversations around weighted student formulas progress, the expectation would be that Powderhouse’s per capita would be brought under that same policy.

How will student out-of-school learning (college courses, travel, etc.) be funded?

All individualized work youth do will be funded by project stipends as part of Powderhouse’s operating model. This is part of the school’s per capita budget and students will never be expected to fund their own projects.

How has the XQ award been spent to date? And how will it be spent in the future?

Thus far, the XQ award has been spent primarily on staffing the design team for Powderhouse Studios, in addition to expenses associated with insurance, legal counsel, architecture services, and similar professional services and supports.

In the future, the XQ award will be primarily spent on supporting:

  • Central Office efforts and costs involved in supporting the development of the Powderhouse model
  • startup costs of Powderhouse itself (including overstaffing in its opening years)
  • the development of district-wide programming for youth and staff grounded in Powderhouse’s professional and curriculum development offerings
  • establishing the research and design programs and partnerships to support the ongoing development of tools, materials, programs, and evaluations core to Powderhouse’s program

Curriculum and Professional Development

What is a “program” and what is a “project” at Powderhouse Studios? What is the potential scope of projects and programs at the school?

A program is similar to a class or after-school program.  A project describes a unit of work that a student does in a program. Projects would likely start small (~10 hours) and could grow to ~1,000 hours over the course of youth’s time at Powderhouse. Programs also vary in length, but most will likely be 6–12 week programs to begin.

What are examples of potential student projects and faculty programs of study?

The Powderhouse team has had the opportunity to work with our design team this year to further develop curricular materials for programs of study, projects, and programs, also mapping those last two prospectively and retrospectively onto standards.

Here is an example of a staff member’s program of study taking a disability rights lens on “imperfection.” Programs of study are staff passions and pursuits from which programs and projects for youth emerge. Every staff will define their own programs of study, ensuring a diverse set of topics and fields are represented.

You can see prototypes of two smaller-scale, mapped projects called Ghost Gardens and Prompts, Poetry, and Pathways and a longer-scale, mapped program in which the team Collaboratively Built a Drawing Robot.

Would Powderhouse Studios offer students the opportunity to take World Languages?

Yes, through cross-registration at local institutions, online classes, and partnerships with several local organizations, including the Boston Language Institute.

How will academic progress and/or gaps be measured at PHS? How often are projects mapped back onto academic standards?

Student work is regularly mapped back onto standards by youth and staff in weekly and quarterly sessions devoted to documentation. Academic achievement will be measured through a mixture of project critique and standards-aligned retrospective mapping, in addition to traditional measures like the MCAS. References to when youth leave are about generating transcripts for receiving institutions like colleges.

What are the mechanisms by which students will be exposed to curricula and standards (e.g. in Social Studies and Visual/Performing Arts) which may not be covered in their projects?

Projects are designed and developed with youth and families to ensure broad and individualized coverage (including topics like Social Studies).  Youth may elect to cover these topics through other means than projects (e.g. cross-registration), as well.

Are there curriculum standards that every cohort will cover?

Yes. All students at Powderhouse will cover the Common Core Math and ELA standards, aligned to MA Curriculum Frameworks. In order to allow for the level of individualization of work Powderhouse is looking to support, it is necessary free up time and space to allow students to go deep in other subject areas they are drawn to, under the guidance and supervision of Powderhouse staff. These subjects might be traditional academic subjects (e.g. history or the sciences) but might also include other fields not traditionally centered in a high school curriculum (e.g. computer science, art history, media studies).  Powderhouse is currently targeting the Science, Technology, and Engineering MCAS, and will target the Physics MCAS in the event the STE MCAS is retired, and such Powderhouse youth will also be covering the associated standards informing those assessments.  The recent Civics Education Reform Bill also entails state requirements which will be incorporated into Individualized Learning Plans.

How will the learning goals of students at Powderhouse Studios be decided?

At Powderhouse, progress toward graduation is defined by:

  1. Project timescale, finishing an ~1000 hour project
  2. Common Core/MA Curriculum Framework-aligned coverage
  3. Satisfying state standardized test requirements for graduation
  4. Securing admission to a postsecondary institution or job.

(1) is important to us because of the academic depth projects can offer when done right as well as the social-emotional and meta-cognitive skills they develop. (2) is a commitment to cover certain standards, as well as other requirements of school including those laid out in the Civics Education Reform Bill. (3) suggests a series of curricular commitments  around math and ELA, largely aligned with the standards from (2) as well as additional commitments from the Science, Technology, and Society MCAS, or Physics MCAS if the STE test is retired.

Taken together, this means Powderhouse Studios is committing to covering the following standards and skills:

  • Common Core ELA
  • Common Core Math
  • Satisfying state standardized testing requirements, currently including the Math, ELA, and Technology/Engineering MCAS, the last to be replaced with the Introductory Physics test when Technology/Engineering is retired
  • SEL Student Performance Framework being developed in collaboration with CREDO and XQ
  • Civics Education Reform Bill curricular commitments which include topics like: (i) history of the United States of America; (ii) the Constitution of the United States, including the Bill of Rights; (iii) the Declaration of Independence; (iv) the constitution of the commonwealth; (v) local history and government; (vi) the function and composition of the branches of local, state and federal government; (vii) the roles and responsibilities of a citizen in a democracy; (viii) the development of skills to access, analyze and evaluate written and digital media as it relates to history and civics; (ix) community diversity and historical trends in voter registration and civic participation relative to disenfranchised voter populations; (x) opportunities to identify and debate issues relative to power, economic status and the common good in democracy; and etc.

Current state standards are not competency based, so how will Powderhouse Studios map these standards to student work?

This is a general challenge with cutting-edge, competency-based approaches. Just as Somerville High School’s Envisioning the Future efforts require the development of subcommittees focused on creating performance based assessments and similar to contribute to a competency based model, so too will Powderhouse (in coordination with Central Office) develop its alignment practices.  For those interested in what this process looks like in a highly individualized setting, you may consider Boston Day & Evening Academy’s overview of their process of aligning their competencies to Common Core State Standards.

Are there detailed examples of what a Powderhouse seminar or project would look like?  

Since the Healey pilot, and based on learnings from that experience, the Powderhouse team has had the opportunity to work with our design team to begin developing curricular materials for projects and programs and map them prospectively and retrospectively onto standards. You can see prototypes of two smaller-scale, mapped projects called Ghost Gardens and Prompts, Poetry, and Pathways and a longer-scale, mapped program in which the team Collaboratively Built a Drawing Robot.

When the Powderhouse team worked at the Healey, what were the lessons learned, and what kind of evaluation was done there?  

Public documentation of the Healey programs and student work live here. — This site was shared with youth, families, the Healey community, and District throughout the duration of the programs from 2016-2018 as a place to see class materials each day and student work when programs ended.

Reflection and reporting about the programs live here. — This portion of the site was put together and shared with the District at the end of the 2016-2017 school year.

The Healey programs offered us an excellent opportunity to test out some of the aspects of Powderhouse’s design with Somerville youth. The program themes and arcs, team teaching model, and facilitation of divergent project work with diverse classes of Somerville students were the pieces most true to our model. Other aspects of the programs—for example the 3 week, 80 minute block structure—posed significant constraints on the scope and depth of projects youth could pursue, often leaving us with just enough time to work with a group to have a project idea and get to a first prototype, never mind having the time to dig deeper into the ideas and content underlying those projects.

Specifically when it comes to curriculum mapping, the 7th and 8th grade team successfully advocated the District for flexibility around standards coverage during the start-up phase of this new, project-based programming so they could focus on some of the other challenging aspects of designing and facilitating STEAM-focused, project-based learning experiences. Given this, we have done some brief, narrative write-ups after the fact for projects from two of the Healey programs to capture what curriculum mapping might have looked like in the Sustainability Fair and Signs of Life programs.

Can you tell us more about staff "on-boarding"? How is this funded and would it count towards years of service?

On-boarding is a fellowship and residency program the was part of the Powderhouse Studios application to XQ.  Powderhouse Studios would pay for this through XQ funding; staff are full staff at that time.  It will count towards years of service, but not toward the acquisition of professional teacher status and faculty status.  

How does the curriculum address the achievement gap for Somerville's Latino population?

Powderhouse’s individualized, project-based approach offers a powerful structure for culturally-grounded and culturally-responsive approaches.

Because youth and staff can co-design projects, there is much greater flexibility to design forward from questions of identity and culture.  Of course, this benefit is not uniquely relevant to Latinx youth.  Questions of culture and identity are powerful starting points for many, but especially for those whose cultures, histories, and interests have been historically and structurally elided, misrepresented, or underrepresented in traditional curricula.

Culturally responsive approaches like these, especially when combined with project based work, have been demonstrated to be effective in reducing achievement gaps and increasing engagement and persistence for underrepresented populations (including Latinx).  One mechanism for this benefit worth highlighting in the context of this question is that project-based environments offer academic contexts where traditional challenges of stereotype threat and self-concept can be sidestepped and overcome, providing youth with an opportunity to engage academic content in fresh modes and contexts. Again, this benefit is not unique to Latinx youth.  Beyond this, there is significant research demonstrating that these elements of Powderhouse’s model are especially well-suited to improving outcomes for English Language Learners.

How will Powderhouse ensure that your staff will have themselves the breadth of exposure enough to know what kinds of things to expose students to, if the school’s goal isn’t to expose students to everything in the admittedly very broad common standards?

Diversity and versatility of background (and demonstrated ability to identify and work across disciplinary boundaries) will be a hiring priority for Powderhouse Studios.  Managing the breadth and diversity of background across a team will be an important consideration in articulating hiring priorities and fit, and will be a task falling to leadership to manage.  Powderhouse’s fellowship year and ongoing professional development will complement this emphasis by identifying and expanding staff’s disciplinary breadth.

Beyond this, it is important to note that part of the premise of Powderhouse’s mentorship and coaching model is that staff’s role is not purely instructional, but is also about helping youth to curate and connect to resources (whether traditional educational resources or community resources and partnerships).  Identifying and developing these offerings will be a shared responsibility of Powderhouse’s leadership and staff, but will be especially important as youth’s projects’ scale grows and becomes more and more likely to benefit from outside support.

Policies & Procedures

What does it mean for students to “elect to graduate” from Powderhouse Studios? Could students choose instead to stay extra years and delay graduation?

“Elect to graduate” means that students and their families are part of the decision to graduate once they are ready. This element is aimed to ensure readiness and persistence in postsecondary college and career. Powderhouse’s model seeks to make the transition from high school more gradual and intentional, ensuring youth and families play a role in that decision-making process.

What "restorative practices" would Powderhouse Studios employ?

You can read more about some of the approaches here and here.  Both Circle Forward and the Center for Restorative Justice will be PHS partners in the school’s design and training work.  These practices are intended to supplant the role punitive discipline typically plays.

What is process for PHS to develop staff evaluations?

Building leaders, in coordination with the district and Powderhouse’s Joint Labor and Management Committee, will work to develop a plan consistent with the Innovation Plan’s autonomies and the state’s model system.

What type of oversight will there be at the school that students are accessing the Massachusetts standards?

Powderhouse youth will be taking lightweight diagnostic tests aligned with the MA Curriculum Frameworks and SAT Suite which will offer a formative picture of students’ access of standards.  This data, along with the finely grained documentation of work and ILP goals coverage (including standards coverage) will form the foundation for coordination and oversight with a Curriculum Working Group to be established in concert with Central Office.  This working group will also be responsible for reporting out to the District Working Group and Central Office regarding curricula at Powderhouse.  Members of the Curriculum Working Group would include key district instructional leaders.

Who makes the decision on what is taught at Powderhouse?

Beyond those commitments made in the Innovation Plan, Powderhouse’s administration and staff will be responsible for designing, developing, and overseeing individualized and cohort-wide curricular choices.  These designs will be reported out to the Curriculum and District Integration Working Groups, and those decisions will be overseen by the Board of Trustees and the District as part of Powderhouse’s ongoing school improvement process.

How would the school handle students who want to transfer out of Powderhouse Studios?

If someone is transferring to another school (likely with a more traditional credit and grade level system), staff will work closely with youth and their family to both

  • translate their portfolio of work into a traditional transcript, complete with grades, if needed
  • and provide any targeted academic preparation which would be useful in smoothing that transition, if time permits

As people work through projects, programs, and occasional classes, staff support youth mapping work onto a mixture of personal, professional, and academic goals (including traditional academic standards).  This mapping will allow Powderhouse to generate detailed, traditional transcripts for those seeking to transfer or to attend postsecondary institutions. Powderhouse’s system for generating these transcripts will be based on models drawn from the Mastery Transcript Consortium.

This mapping (and the overall transferability of Powderhouse experiences) will be an element of District oversight at Powderhouse.

How will Powderhouse Studios handle students with significant behavioral challenges?

Where appropriate, and in coordination with Central Office, Powderhouse Studios will establish special education and clinical services that to support challenging students.  Powderhouse is committed to developing a restorative, trauma-sensitive design and approach to behavioral challenges.  This approach will be implemented within applicable district policies.  As in any school, Powderhouse will develop its student handbook and associated policies, and will train (and hire) staff at Powderhouse so as to be able to implement its restorative and trauma-sensitive approach.  The details of this training, staffing, and oversight will be among the considerations of the District Integration Working Group, and depend in part on the specific needs of youth enrolling at Powderhouse.

What certifications or credentials are Powderhouse educators expected to have, given that project based learning is a different way of learning than many teachers are typically trained in?

Unfortunately the community of practice around project-based learning hasn’t coalesced into a coherent set of credentialed, professional development opportunities, though there are exemplars and best practices to learn from and build upon. That said, in recognition of the challenges and depth of skill required not just for project-based learning in general but for Powderhouse’s particular focus on divergent, technical, creative work, we’ve partnered with Lesley University’s Graduate School of Education and the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning to deepen Powderhouse’s staff onboarding experience to ensure staff are skillful, experienced, project-based educators.

Will students be prepared to take the MCAS?  How will MCAS be integrated in Powderhouse Studios?

Yes, the state’s standardized testing requirements are unchanged for Powderhouse Studios.  Ongoing, lightweight formative assessments aligned with the MCAS and SAT Suite will be used by staff to inform project work and small group academic support for youth.


How will Powderhouse Studios be governed? Who would sit on the Board of Trustees? How are these individuals selected?

Like all Somerville public schools, Powderhouse will be authorized and overseen by the School Committee and Superintendent. Additionally, the Board of Trustees will interface between Powderhouse and the School Committee, pulling together reports on the school’s work from staffing to student outcomes as required and requested by the School Committee, and the District Integration Working Group will interface between Powderhouse and Central Office, making sure Powderhouse is properly integrating with District processes and protocols.

The makeup and selection process for members of the Board of Trustees is laid out in the Innovation Plan (relevant section around board makeup and member selection quoted below) along with a description of the body’s roles and responsibilities in operating and overseeing Powderhouse Studios.

Note that some details (like the timeline on which the Board will be established) may need to change, depending on if and when Powderhouse is authorized.

Institutionally, the Board of Trustees will sit at the center of its governance process. The Board of Trustees, upon approval of this Innovation Plan, shall be deemed to be public agents authorized by the Commonwealth to supervise and control Powderhouse Studios. The Board will have at least ten members comprising:

  • District directors of Special Education, English Language Learner support, and Finance
  • a current student
  • an alumni (or student, for those years when no alumni are available or willing to serve)
  • a current parent (not of the student Board member)
  • a staff member
  • a faculty member from a postsecondary institution
  • an industry representative
  • and a creative professional whose work embodies PHS's interdisciplinary approach

The Powderhouse Studios applicant, in consultation with the Superintendent, will be responsible for determining the initial membership of the Board of Trustees. In establishing Board bylaws and membership, reflecting the PHS and Somerville communities will prioritized. This Board will be established at least six months before the first day of Powderhouse Studios’ opening and adopt full and appropriate bylaws in at least ninety days’ advance of Powderhouse Studios’ opening.

The Directors of Special Education, English Learner Education, and Finance will be voting, e​x officio members of the Board of Trustees, charged with providing financial, SPED, and ELL oversight.

For more information, Powderhouse Studios’ governance structure is described loosely on pages 19-20 of the Design Overview and more in depth on pages 22-23 and 32-36 in the Innovation Plan.

How will partnerships be identified and administered, under the oversight of the district?

Part of complementing Somerville’s other schools and programs is being in communication with the District around partnerships and outside funding. When we’ve applied for funding in the past, Powderhouse Studios did so as an independent team and nonprofit. If approved, Powderhouse will be a part of the Somerville Public Schools and will coordinate efforts with the Superintendent with full transparency to the Board of Trustees and School Committee. This commitment is written into the Innovation Plan on page 31.

PHS is seeking autonomy “in designing, developing and managing the Individualized Learning Plan System”, would this be under the oversight of the district’s technology staff?

After surveying dozens of existing Learning Management Systems (LMSes), Powderhouse found that three, structural issues meant developing an Individualized Learning Plan was necessary:

  1. Powderhouse’s projects are deeply interdisciplinary, and not organized by subject or standard.
  2. The goals in the Individualized Learning Plan combine a variety of personal, professional, and academic goals, mixing standards with individualized growth goals.
  3. The goals engaged by a given project or experience will involve a mix of prospective and retrospective mapping.

To be able to generate the finely grained mapping required to ensure staff the ability to retroactively examine and assign grades to work product, generate traditional transcripts, and so on, Powderhouse determined a custom solution was required.

Powderhouse is committed to taking responsibility for the integration of its Individualized Learning Plan with all necessary district systems, and that integration would happen under the oversight of District IT and Curriculum staff, as deemed fit by the District Integration Working Group.

What if the ideas behind Powderhouse Studios are great, but the school does not actually work in practice?

If the governance structure for Powderhouse is working well, failure won’t happen overnight. The Board of Trustees will be regularly sharing reports of concern with the Superintendent and the School Committee and iteration and course correction will be possible, including by limiting certain autonomies granted the school if there is a case to be made that limiting those autonomies will improve school performance. If, even in the face of that iteration and course correction, the school is deemed a failure, the School Committee may refuse to reauthorize the school’s innovation plan, thereby closing the school and absorbing its students back into other DIstrict schools.

What are Powderhouse’s current partner or vendor agreements?

Given Powderhouse’s focus on integration with the community and the complexity of starting a new school, it may come as no surprise that there are a wide variety of existing and potential partnerships and relationships in various stages of maturity. Only a selection of verbal agreements and partnerships are listed, since Powderhouse has been engaged in a very wide variety of partnership conversations.  A representative selection has been included, with a brief summary of the agreement/partnership.

Contracts and vendors

  1. Design, development of software supporting Powderhouse’s Individualized Learning Plan
  2. Design, development of Powderhouse’s operations manual and district integration plan
  3. Architectural consulting, project management, and design services, including the development of workshops and educational programming for youth and staff.
  4. Legal counsel for support and advice on issues including but not limited to real estate, municipal finance, civil rights, and so on.
  5. Accounting and auditing services, including support designing a full transparency and auditing system.
  6. Technical consulting on the design and development of auditing, certification, and transparency systems for enrollment.
  7. Translation services and support
  8. Various software services (e.g. Google Suite, Dropbox, etc.)

Verbal agreements, partnerships, exploratory work

N.B. per note above, these are a representative sample.

  1. FabFoundation, regarding the design and development of Powderhouse’s workshop space, as well as training and support for Powderhouse youth and staff.
  2. Somerville Media Center, regarding media training and equipment at Powderhouse’s campus.
  3. Davis Square Martial Arts, regarding sharing space and programming opportunities.
  4. Supernormal, regarding the development of data-driven workshops to inform the design and redesign of Powderhouse’s campus.
  5. Massachusetts School Building Authority, regarding the design and development of workshops for youth and staff engaging the design and redesign of space to support learning and creative work.
  6. Lesley University, regarding the development of Powderhouse’s fellowship for staff, including around Professional Standards of Teaching, Social Work, English Language Learning, and Subject Matter Knowledge requirements for Digital Literacy and Computer Science.
  7. Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning, regarding the design and development of Powderhouse’s fellowship for staff, targeting Digital Literacy and Computer Science skills.
  8. MIT Teaching and Learning Lab, regarding the development of organizational management and design training for Powderhouse staff and research collaborations.
  9. Harvard Graduate School of Education, regarding the design and development of Powderhouse’s fellowship for staff and research collaborations.
  10. Northeastern University NExT Network, regarding the design and development of Powderhouse’s fellowship for staff and research collaborations.
  11. Collaborative Living Project, regarding the development of intergenerational programming and mentorship at Powderhouse’s campus.
  12. Nervous System, regarding the design and development of a collaborative, generative sculpture and associated workshops for youth and staff.
  13. CAST, regarding research collaborations around Universal Design for Learning.

Grant applications

  1. None in progress, past applications and partners have included MA DESE, the Center for Collaborative Education, NGLC, Barr Foundation, and XQ.


How much longer of a day would Powderhouse students have? How does the Powderhouse schedule compare to the Somerville High School schedule? How many days are youth expected to attend per year?

Each day at Powderhouse is 118 minutes longer than a day at SHS, and the year is longer as well.  A day at Somerville High School is 392 minutes long with a 30 minute lunch, or 362 minutes ignoring transition time.  A day at Powderhouse Studios is 540 minutes long, with a 60 minute lunch, or 480 minutes ignoring transition time.

Students can choose attended up to 234 days each year, but based on conversations with pre-registered families, the Powderhouse team expects most youth will chose to attend approximately 200 days each year.

What are the building plans for the space at the Powderhouse complex?

The public plans and materials for the Powderhouse complex can be found on Marka’s site here, and floorplans, which may be a bit out of date, for the complex are here.

How and when have Somerville families “pre-registered” for Powderhouse Studios?

Over the course of the past year and a half or so, families have been able to pre-register interest in enrolling in the school through Powderhouse’s website. This pre-registration simply expands the potential weighted lottery pool. Powderhouse's weighted enrollment lottery guarantees those who enroll in the school will mirror the socioeconomic, demographic, and academic profile of youth in Somerville. The group that has expressed interest is broad and diverse enough to meet the current equity commitments.

What is the Powderhouse plan to hire a diverse workforce?

Because of how closely youth work with staff, and because of how important staff’s own backgrounds, interests, and aptitudes are to the development of rich and accessible programs of study (and derivative projects and programs), it’s essential that Powderhouse hire a diverse staff.  Even in traditional settings (where teachers’ cultural background and ethnicity may appear less directly curricularly), shared ethnic background has been shown to have a significant impact on student performance through mechanisms of engagement, relationship, and culturally responsive practices.

This priority is supported by the licensure flexibility Powderhouse’s interdisciplinary model requires, allowing it to hire from a much wider variety of creative, professional, and youth work contexts.  This is essential to hiring a diverse workforce because unfortunately—especially in Massachusetts—there are structural, economic and cultural obstacles to developing a diverse teaching workforce under traditional licensure in a state where over 93% of licensed teachers are white.

Building diversity, inclusion, and equity effectively into Powderhouse’s hiring commitments will also require working with hiring partners and networks.  Powderhouse has assembled a variety of these partners already, and looks forward to expanding these partnerships in coordination with the District if approved.

How much will Powderhouse Studios tuition be?

As a public school, Powderhouse Studios will not cost anything to those attending, there will be no tuition.

Like districts like Boston, there will be a site-based budget calculated per the Innovation School legislation and Innovation Plan.  As of 2016, that budget would be ~$16,100 per student.  This figure does not reflect additional state aid or outside fundraising which would augment Powderhouse’s budget.

Could PHS (in full or in part) exist within Somerville High School, or become an extended program?  Why does the school have to be independent?

Powderhouse Studios certainly hopes that the design, professional, and curriculum development work it has and will do can have much broader relevance throughout the district, including at Somerville High School.  Powderhouse believes that it is important to establish an independent sandbox to effectively prototype these materials and services.

Beyond this, a small, intimate environment is essential to Powderhouse’s design.  This is hard to reconcile with a full, comprehensive high school like Somerville High School.  Of course that same scale and comprehensiveness enables Somerville High School to offer a wide variety of experiences Powderhouse would be unable to.

Through a thorough review of a wide variety of programs and school-within-a-school models and associated research (including interviews with program and school leaders), it has become clear that the challenges of a school-within-a-school model are sizable, and require a significant, compelling educational reason to incur.

Given the new design of the high school, and the apparent consolidation of offices on Central Hill, why are we expanding?

Powderhouse Studios' role as a sandbox benefits from an independent site, and its design was not incorporated into the Somerville High School Building Project.  

Should the resources to innovate go to a new school serving a small group of students, or to the existing schools serving many?

Two of the challenges of innovation in education are that:

  1. It often requires sandboxing.  Even an innovation which will eventually serve many youth can rarely be effectively designed or prototyped at scale from day one.  You cannot innovate without risking difficulty and failure, and it would be irresponsible to do this at scale.  Also, being able to prototype, understand, and course-correct requires a small, agile sandbox.
  2. No one school can serve every student equally well.  One of public education’s challenges is figuring out how to provide a wide variety of programmatic options and supports with limited resources and contexts to do so.

The Powderhouse team believes that the need, scale, and opportunity Powderhouse Studios represents makes a compelling case for trying Powderhouse by beginning small and intentionally.  If the District sees value in what Powderhouse prototypes, the District, School Committee, and community at large will be well-equipped with an operating example to understand how these innovations might be spread more broadly in the District.

Is the Powderhouse school meeting some urgent unmet need or it is just an alternative?

The Powderhouse team—and many families with whom we’ve worked or talked over the years—believe that there are youth for whom Powderhouse represents an important and essential enough need so as to be described as urgent.

Will Powderhouse Studios seek a Parent-Liaison position that is bilingual?

Yes, absolutely.

How will the Powderhouse Studios schedule allow students to access extracurriculars?

Powderhouse’s flexible scheduling means that youth will be able to participate in extracurriculars available at Somerville High School or elsewhere.  Powderhouse will be responsible for all logistics and transportation involved in this.

Coordinating with families and youth, Powderhouse staff will treat youth’s extracurriculars as external projects, analogous to an internship.  In particular, this means Powderhouse staff will also seek to connect youth’s extracurricular work back to project work and similar within Powderhouse.

This structure is enabled by two, important elements of Powderhouse’s design:

  1. A competency-based approach means that when youth aren’t present at Powderhouse, they are not missing direct instruction, they are simply not continuing on project work.
  2. The fact that Powderhouse’s day and year are longer mean that even if someone were to, e.g., participate in four seasons of sports, they would still be well over the state’s learning time requirements.