A Fresh Start cover

A Fresh Start

Grace Milner Howard-Donlin ’00 founds an inner-city honors academy that challenges the status quo

By Allyson Manchester Photos by Joanna Chattman

Regis Today Fall 2018

Grace Milner Howard-Donlin ’00, principal and founder of Springfield Honors Academy in western Massachusetts, describes her school building as “one of the prized possessions of the city.” Built in the early 1900s, it teems with old charm: wooden auditorium seats, marble detailing in the lobby, and large windows that overlook the city skyline. The building, which is home to The High School of Commerce, is also where the current mayor of Springfield attended school.

It may seem incongruous, then, that Howard-Donlin would choose a historical gem as the location for Springfield Honors Academy at The High School of Commerce, the newest—and perhaps most radical—school program in the city of Springfield. Still, since she founded the school and first opened its doors in fall 2017, Howard-Donlin has found it to be the perfect starter home.

Before taking on the role of founding principal at Springfield Honors Academy, Howard-Donlin was teaching and working on similar design projects in other districts. When Springfield leaders and educators approached her about their idea to create an honors academy in the city, she was eager to bring it to fruition. According to their vision, the school would cater to high-performing, low-opportunity students.

“I knew that this would be the most challenging undertaking of my life,” Howard-Donlin says. “But as I saw and thought about student needs in Springfield, I knew that I wanted to dig deep and get creative about how I could meet those tremendous needs.”

The result was Springfield Honors Academy, a public school program that selects students based on GPA, essays, an interview, MCAS scores, and letters of recommendation. As Howard-Donlin thought about how the new academy could best serve its students, she decided that her top priority would be to create an entirely new set of expectations for their achievement. According to the Massachusetts Department of Education leveling system, most public schools in Springfield are labeled as a Level 4 or Level 5 status. This means that the schools have been evaluated as “underperforming” or “chronically underperforming” based on students’ standardized test scores. Level 4 and Level 5 schools constitute the bottom 4 percent of schools in the state, and their low status is a constant topic of discussion in the media and in the schools. Many students, in turn, come to accept their underperformance as an inevitable truth.

According to Howard-Donlin, a new school would be absolutely necessary in providing students in Springfield with a new sense of potential. “Our students need to believe that they have the power to become more than just another inner-city statistic. It is very difficult to confront and change the mindset that they have about their own achievement.”

Because Springfield Honors Academy opened its doors so recently, it has not yet been assigned a level on the Department of Education’s 1–5 scale—which may actually work in its favor. Howard- Donlin strongly believes that the absence of an official label has given the school true power to define itself. Since the opening of the school program, students have shared comments with Howard-Donlin like, “I’ve always felt stuck, now I have a fresh start,” and “I never would have thought that I could make this kind of improvement.” In addition to offering students a rigorous curriculum and a safe, beautiful building for learning, Howard-Donlin is actively changing their perception of what’s possible.

Be Your Best

With the “fresh start” mentality permeating the halls of Springfield Honors Academy, Howard-Donlin plans to make individualized instruction another trademark of the school. An intentionally low enrollment—only 60-70 students in each grade—allows faculty and staff to learn the students’ individual stories, identify their specific needs, and make personalized plans for growth. Howard-Donlin strongly believes that this individualized approach is the key reason students have made measurable improvement at the academy thus far.

'As I saw and thought about student needs in Springfield, I knew that I wanted to dig deep and get creative about how I could meet those tremendous needs.' - Grace Milner Howard-Donlin ’00

In fall 2017, students at Springfield Honors Academy took the MAP assessment, a well-regarded tool for monitoring student growth. After receiving results, teachers worked with students to interpret their individual data and strategize for a MAP retake in the winter. The teachers also focused on helping students believe that they could achieve higher scores on the second test. Winter test scores showed a 94 percent increase in mathematics and a 510 percent increase in English.

“Simply put, we notice our students in ways that help them to notice themselves and their worth. It is amazing to see results from students who are able to believe in themselves,” Howard-Donlin says of the philosophy.

The school’s motto, Vestri Optimus Pro Mundo (Be Your Best for the World), gives students a daily reminder of their worth. It is just one of the inspirational touches that the founding faculty has added to the halls of Springfield Honors Academy. In the lobby, five stately flags hang from the ceiling, each representing one of the “five pillars” of school culture: integrity, intellect, respect, possibility, and citizenship. In order to show students the relationship between secondary and post-secondary education, each pillar is directly tied to the mission statement of a well-respected college or university. Given the fact that Howard-Donlin’s passion for education began at Regis, it’s no surprise that the university is one of the names on this list.

“My entire Regis experience influenced the way that I feel about education,” Howard-Donlin notes. She remembers professors Leona McCaughey-Oreszak, PhD, Carmela Abbruzzese, CSJ, and Judith Costello, CSJ, as playing a special role in shaping her educational philosophy. “My professors knew how to teach us about really reaching kids. ‘Making a difference’ wasn’t just a cliché; it was what we were being trained to do as future educators. I can still remember these professors so vividly, genuinely caring about their craft. I carry it with me always and it guides so much of what I do.”

Howard-Donlin has also incorporated her Regis education into Springfield Honors Academy in more concrete ways, such as adding a course to the school’s core curriculum—Demystification of the Arts—that is based on one of her favorite courses at Regis. The class exposes students to art research and asks them to engage in creative projects that span all eras, media, and styles.

But while Springfield Honors Academy has certainly enjoyed a beautiful beginning, Howard-Donlin knows that many aspects of the new school program are likely to change: They will eventually become a four-year comprehensive entity; they will eventually earn a level status from the Department of Education. Amid the uncertainty, Howard-Donlin maintains the same sense of possibility that she has instilled in her students.

“The only way for us to progress is to see past the reasons why our school shouldn’t succeed. We plan to show people why we can.”

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