By Sarah Favot
LOWELL -- The state's secretary of education played kickball Thursday with fourth graders in the Murkland School gym, toured Nesmith House with Middlesex Community College President Carole Cowan and toured two UMass Lowell's newest innovative buildings for emerging technologies and health sciences.
It was Secretary Matthew Malone's first trip to Lowell since he became the head of the state's three branches of education: early, elementary and secondary and higher education.
Malone, a registered Republican, was appointed by Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick to replace outgoing Secretary Paul Reville.
After a day of touring samples of the Mill City's educational institutions, Malone said he was excited by what he saw.
"It seems like a hotbed," he said. "A hotbed of innovative ideas and of innovative practices happening in Lowell."
Malone said he planned to take some of the programs he saw Thursday and take them to other parts of the state.
At the Murkland School, he met with fourth-grade teachers who were spending a day for professional learning time, going over curriculum modules and outlining priorities. The teachers meet about once a month, as part of the school's turnaround plan when it was named an under-performing school in 2010. It has since achieved Level 1 results on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests.
"My theory is If we could do one thing, it would be to provide more time for teachers to work collaboratively to get greater results," Malone told the teachers.
Malone saw a second-grade "writer's workshop" class where students were writing poems, learning that line breaks give poems rhythm. Teacher Meredith Kaufman called her students writers and one student said he needed to put on his poet's glasses, which were plastic and had a fake mustache hanging from the rims.
Malone praised the school's attitude about its turnaround, of not feeling sorry, but taking the challenge head-on.
Shortie McKinney, dean of the UMass Lowell College of Health Sciences, showed Malone the university's newest $40 million Health and Social Sciences Building that features a classroom with desks that are on wheels to help the group work easier.
Malone said with children growing up using their parent's iPhones, teachers can no longer capture students' attention by "chalk and talk."
McKinney said the challenge is to retrofit classrooms that are built with concrete steps in traditional lecture-hall style because it is expensive.
One thing Malone said impressed him about the university was its dedication to using industry-standard technologies.
In the Emerging Technologies and Innovations Center, Malone said the machines used to make plastic molds were the same machines he saw at global-plastics manufacturer Nypro Inc. in Clinton.
"You have to be industry standard in a research university," said Malone.
At MCC, faculty explained the different partnerships the college has with kindergarten through 12th-grade programs. For example, its Lowell Middlesex Academy Charter School was formed 18 years ago to serve students who have dropped out of comprehensive high schools or are at-risk of doing so.
While Malone, in his previous job as superintendent of the Brockton Public Schools, worked to stop a SABIS charter school from opening in Brockton, he said he sees a lot of growth for charter schools that are targeted to address at-risk students or dropouts.
Malone said he was surprised that as a former chair of the Urban Superintendents Network, he hadn't heard about the depth of Middlesex's work in the community.
Malone said education leaders expressed their concern to him throughout the day if the Legislature doesn't fund Patrick's budget that included $900 million for education, especially for Gateway Cities programs.
He said it is his job to convince legislators that education is a priority. Although the House didn't fund some education programs included in Patrick's budget, Malone said he is hopeful the Senate will increase funding to some areas and conference committees will work out a compromise.