5 school districts with innovative programs in affordable communities

55 Lexington Ave., Dartmouth.
55 Lexington Ave., Dartmouth.

With low inventory and home prices soaring in Massachusetts, it’s more and more difficult to break into communities traditionally known for their superior school districts.

But there are several affordable cities and towns that offer innovative programs that meet students’ social/emotional, academic, and artistic needs, whether it’s a renowned music program, personalized learning instruction, or mental health screenings.

Here is a sampling of local school districts that are taking a unique approach to education — and where the median home sale price is well under $500,000:

Behavioral and mental health

Methuen Public Schools

The school district has developed a comprehensive mental health system that officials believe is a critical component of educating the whole child.

The district, which has roughly 7,000 students, partnered with the University of Maryland’s Center for School Mental Health four years ago and has been building on its program since then, said John Crocker, the district’s guidance director. Methuen is the lead district in the recently created Massachusetts School Mental Health Consortium.

“The goal is to reflect and acknowledge that if we don’t provide the support students need, how can we expect them to have the academic gains we’d like them to?’’ Crocker said. “When there is crisis all day in the classroom, not a lot of learning happens.’’

Starting in the third grade, students are screened for age-appropriate issues such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Curriculum and resources are then developed based on their needs, whether it’s coping skills or even group therapy within the school day.

“We’re trying to understand students comprehensively so we can prevent problems from getting worse, and we can target our work in a way that’s going to be more effective and efficient,’’ Crocker said. “Not every student needs therapy, but every student needs to learn the skills that will insulate them from stress.’’

Median sale price of single-family homes: $374,450

*All sales data, for July 2018, provided by The Warren Group

ABOVE $369,500

6 Guilford Ave., Methuen

Type Single-family saltbox/contemporary

Year built 1984

Lot size 1.05 acre

Bedrooms 3

Baths 1 full, 1 half

Square footage 2,016

Fermin Group, Century 21 North East,

The arts

Dartmouth Public Schools

If you’re looking for a world-class marching band, Dartmouth High School is the place to go.

For the second year in a row, the school’s band and color guard took first place in its division to win the national championship.

William Kingsland, the district’s music director, said the Dartmouth community has long supported the program with volunteer activities and fund-raising through the Dartmouth School Music Association.

Kingsland said as a special aspect of the program, instruction takes place within the school day and teachers move with the students, creating a consistent education. The instrumental team, for example, works with students from fifth grade all the way through 12th.

“People have ownership of these kids from the time they get them until they graduate,’’ he said.

In addition to the marching band, the district also has band, choral, and orchestral programs in grades 5 through 12. There are more than 3,700 students in the district, according to the school department’s website.

Kingsland said the music program is a huge draw for families.

“Parents will tell me that it’s the glue that keeps things together for some kids who don’t really like school,’’ he said.

Median sale price of single-family homes: $345,250

ABOVE $349,900

55 Lexington Ave., Dartmouth

Type Single-family Cape

Year built 1955

Lot size 0.16 acre

Bedrooms 4

Baths 2 full

Square footage 1,893

Cleofa Rodrigues, Jack Conway Co. Inc.,

Personalized instruction

Millis Public Schools

Each year, teachers sit down with students to create a personalized learning profile.

Nancy Gustafson, superintendent of the 1,250-student district, said this is just one way the district is using technology to personalize learning. “Personalization is much more doable in Millis because we are small and we’ve always had this culture that captures our motto, “Small School, Big Family,’’ Gustafson said. “As a district, we knew that personalizing learning is what we could do better than anyone else. We are small, nimble, and flexible.’’

The student profiles include interests, aspirations, learning styles, skill and knowledge levels, and other information that helps teachers personalize their instructional approach.

How that instruction takes place is different from class to class, depending on student needs. Gustafson said some teachers go deeply into project-based learning, in which students have more say in how they learn. She cited an example of a high school history teacher who allowed students to create rap songs to show their mastery of a certain time period.

Students seem to be responding, she said. “We know from surveys that they are more engaged. They like having choices. They like being encouraged to have input into setting their goals.’’

Median sale price of single-family homes: $449,500

ABOVE $479,900

76 Acorn St., Millis

Type Single-family Dutch Colonial

Year built 1982

Lot size 0.75 acre

Bedrooms 3

Baths 2 full, 1 half

Square footage 2,272

Bernie Calvario, Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage,


Student grouping, not grades

Carlton Innovation School, Salem

There’s no such thing as kindergarten at the Carlton Innovation School. Or first, second, third, fourth, or fifth grade. Instead, pupils are grouped together in cohorts based on their age and academic and emotional growth, said Bethann Jellison, principal of the school, which has 281 enrolled and a waiting list.

Students can start school at one of three times during the school year after turning 5 — August, the end of November, or March — instead of waiting until the next school year begins. Students advance from a cohort only when they are ready socially, emotionally, and academically in English language arts and math, she said. “We look at the whole child and move them when the whole child is ready.’’

Students who finish the fifth-grade curriculum early (some are on pace to do that in November) will then take part in a project-based curriculum in English language arts, science, history, and math that takes them out into the community, Jellison said.

Median sale price of single-family homes:  $385,000

ABOVE $374,995

40 Hanson St., Unit 2, Salem

Type Condo

Year built 1915/converted 2018

Bedrooms 3

Baths 2 full

Square footage 1,230

Condo fee $156 per month

Candice Pagliarulo, Century 21 North East,



(Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics)

Russell Street School, Littleton

Three years ago, the Russell Street School made the shift from consuming technology to creating with technology through its Think Tank. It’s a space that allows children and adults to be both teachers and learners in the same environment, according to the principal, Scott Bazydlo. The school has 400 pupils in grades 3, 4, and 5.

“Through the use of both high-tech and low-tech materials, students have the opportunity to be critical thinkers and solve real world problems,’’ Bazydlo said. For example, some fifth-graders have gone through the engineering process to design and refine holders for the ear buds they need for class.

“In many cases, the work done in the Think Tank is less about a direct connection to academic standards at each grade level and more about high levels of engagement and the social/emotional growth of students,’’ Bazydlo said.

Some of the activities in the Think Tank include green-screen filming in which students use an app to create a video with any virtual background; engage in 3D printing; and program Spero, a robot that can be trained to do things like run through obstacle courses.

“We receive very positive feedback and have welcomed teachers from other school districts to visit as they plan similar experiences,’’ he said.

Median sale price of single-family homes: $418,000

ABOVE $419,900

66 Edsel Road, Littleton

Type Single-family ranch

Year built 1958

Lot size 0.27 acre

Bedrooms 4

Baths 2 full

Square footage 1,652

Justin Melo, LAER Realty Partners,