At these schools, teachers get a say in how things are run

Teachers.Julie Cook, left, and Jeannine Dunn, right, in the 7th- and 8th-grade classroom at Souderton Charter School Collaborative.

On a hot July morning, when their peers might be enjoying summer break at the beach, Julie Cook and Jeannine Dunn — teachers at the Souderton Charter School Collaborative – have come into the redbrick schoolhouse on the Montgomery County town’s main drag to work on a new technology curriculum and elective schedule for the fall.

It’s just what you have to do when you’re in charge – the situation that Cook, Dunn, and their colleagues sought when Souderton Charter became one of only 120 “teacher-powered schools” in the nation, where classroom instructors make key decisions about what to teach, what to spend money on, even whom to hire.

At institutions like Souderton, the Workshop School, and Building 21 in Philadelphia – the three recognized teacher-powered schools in the region – classroom teachers are setting the rules for matters such as curriculum and discipline, areas that would be handled by central administrators in a traditional school. There’s still a principal or head of school, but they are more facilitator than boss.

“We have a real voice and choice, and a sense of ownership of what we’re doing here,” said Cook, 49, who taught at three conventional schools and nearly left the profession after bristling over top-down authority and being dictated which lessons to teach and when to teach them. She said discovering Souderton Charter when she enrolled her oldest son there in 2002 saved her career.

“A lot of teachers don’t make it past the five-year mark,” said Cook, who teaches language arts and history to seventh and eighth graders at Souderton, which has about 230 students in grades K-8. In traditional schools, the lack of “teacher autonomy contributes to feeling that this is not a sustainable profession,” she said. “It’s not necessarily that there is burnout — they can’t figure out a way to work the way they had dreamed or thought that they could.”

The notion of a teacher-powered school dates to the 1970s, but much of the growth has occurred over the last decade as parents and other stakeholders sought a more tailored approach to classroom instruction.

Richard Ingersoll, professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, said his survey of teacher autonomy involving one million teachers in 25,000 schools shows that teachers with more of a say over what happens in their classrooms produce higher test scores, and that control of student discipline is especially important.

“We’ve always found that the whole behavioral [and] discipline thing is very important, and it drives teachers nuts. Where there’s more behavioral problems, there’s more turnover of teachers,” he said.

“In a traditional school, a principal is the person in charge,” said Amy Junge, director of teacher-powered schools for Education Evolving, a St. Paul, Minn.-based organization that promotes teacher-powered schools nationally. “Moving to a more democratic decision-making process at a school looks different. [Teachers] are not just investing time, but really investing themselves in the school.”

Still, even the most vocal advocates for teacher-powered learning acknowledge there are challenges. Adding administrative-type duties on top of teaching creates extra work, and the goals of collaboration and consensus among the teaching staff can drag out decisions that a principal at a conventional school might make in an instant.

“It’s not a perfect system,” concedes Junge, which is why her organization offers resources to help schools become more efficient and make better decisions.

It helps that the vast majority of the 120 recognized teacher-powered schools are charter or private schools, which have fewer political or union obstacles to classroom autonomy. Junge noted that experiments with teacher autonomy in public schools in Milwaukee and Los Angeles were pulled back because reform-minded superintendents wanted to centralize control, but that overall, the autonomy movement is still growing.

At Souderton, founder Wendy Ormsby said teachers not only set the curriculum but also get a say in the school’s budget, hiring, and staff evaluations. The lack of administrators, Ormsby noted, means that more dollars – about 75 percent of the budget – get spent on instruction.

Some recent teacher-generated decisions include developing a mandatory volunteer program for students and running a summer class for English-language learners. The payoff has been academic success. With an above-average Pennsylvania School Performance Profile, a state rating of schools that now stands at 82 out of 100 and has been as high as the 90s, according to Ormsby, the school has a waiting list of 300 kids and is weighing a major expansion.

Krista Gilkes, the ESL instructor, previously taught for 10 years at one of the region’s largest charter schools, Chester Community Charter, and said “it was a 360-degree turn coming from a school where administration tells you what to do to a school where administration really listens to you and values your opinions.”

Teacher autonomy is also an integral part of the Workshop School, where the focus is on project-based learning — students might spend an entire year designing a car, for example – and which has flourished since it became a full-fledged high school in 2013.

Principal Simon Hauger said that like most other teacher-centric schools, the model of autonomy is something of a hybrid; as principal, he said, he’s still required to do evaluations or teacher discipline, if it ever comes to that, but the classroom instructors are making the key decisions about what to teach. Currently, he said, teachers are working to bring in learning around trauma and restorative practices that repair damaged relationships to help students from violence-prone neighborhoods.

“Most of the educators I’ve worked with in my career were very, very intelligent people and very passionate, and I think if the structure’s set up correctly, then teachers absolutely should have more say and more power,” Hauger said. “And along with that comes higher ownership and higher accountability.”

Kathleen Melville, 35, who’s been at the Workshop School for four years, said teachers work on issues like developing a new grading model or deciding between traditional semesters or trimesters. It’s a lot of work, she acknowledges, but she’s fine with that because the work is “meaningful.”

“Would I go back to traditional school?” Melville asked, rhetorically. “Never — it completely ruined me.”