Teacher-led schools conference comes to St. Paul

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What do teachers want? More autonomy! When do they want it? Now! Who decides what that autonomy will look like? Good question.

“Autonomous” schools, as a concept, keeps popping up, most recently in Minneapolis. There, school superintendent Bernadeia Johnson put forth a “Shift” agenda last year, designed to alter the landscape of school choice within Minneapolis by having schools with “more autonomy,” as well as “more accountability.”

This concept is a little fuzzy, from the sidelines, but has taken on more definition through the example of Pierre Bottineau French Immersion (PBFI) School, which is Minnesota’s first “Site-Governed” school, per a 2010 law that allowed for the creation of such schools. PBFI is also part of the Minneapolis Public School’s “portfolio,” and therefore is at once a district school and an “autonomous” school. The recently proposed contract for Minneapolis teachers also includes a provision for a new crop of “Community Partnership Schools.” Exactly what those would look like has not yet been made clear.

Whew. It is exhausting just trying to track down and further define all of these new school choice models, all of which seem to center on the idea that teachers should have more of a say in how schools are run (provided they can meet pre-set accountability measures, of course).

This week, however, a Teacher-Led Schools Conference is taking place in St. Paul, where experienced practitioners of such schools will gather, share what they’ve learned, and, perhaps, inspire others to take on the challenge of creating a school that is truly more autonomous than a traditional district school.

Nora Whalen is a Program Coordinator at the Avalon School in St. Paul, which is an independent charter school that serves students in grades 6-12. Whalen is helping put on this teacher-led schools conference, and she was able to give me a fuller picture of both the conference and the vision for these schools.

While the “autonomous” schools being proposed in Minneapolis have yet to be fully defined, Avalon has been perfecting its more autonomous approach for years now. Whalen describes Avalon as having a “flat management” style, where decisions about the school are mostly made by consensus. Therefore, in Whalen’s words, Avalon is truly a “teacher-run school.” This contrasts with the Site-Governed Schools law from 2010, which allows for more independent schools to be created within large school districts, such as Minneapolis.

The difficulty with this, according to Whalen, is that any such school must still work within existing management structures, such as Associate Superintendents, School Boards, and the teachers unions. How a school can truly be independently run within such a top-down structure has not yet been adequately explained, it might seem. The model of giving teachers more autonomy, on the one hand, but greater accountability to standards and measures of success as defined by an external source, is perhaps intriguing, but also perplexing, so far. One of the goals of the Teacher-Led Schools conference, however, is to bring these disparate groups together to see how greater autonomy and independence could work within such existing structures.

For Whalen, working in a teacher-run school has been liberating. Before she came to Avalon, she worked as a social studies teacher in a traditional district school, where she found it “nearly impossible to teach students about democracy when I myself had no voice in the curriculum or running of the school.” Now, through her work at Avalon, she feels able to engage in a participatory democracy with her students, who see principles of democracy modeled every day at Avalon. For Whalen, this is “real life preparation” for the students, who are able to “find their voices in their education” through decision-making and project-based learning, which asks students to “show what they know.”

The conference will be held this Thursday and Friday, March 20-21, at Avalon School in St. Paul. The conference will include student voices, as well as sessions that attempt to address these central questions:

  • How does the role of the professional teacher change when teachers “call the shots”?
  • Do teachers embrace accountability in exchange for autonomy?
  • What happens to student learning with highly empowered teachers in charge of the entire school or perhaps one or two departments of a school?
  • How do the roles of the administration, the board of education, and the union change?