Modeling democracy in Teacher-Powered Schools

By Amy Junge • Dec 06, 2018

This blog post was orginally posted as part of a blogging roundtable in collaboration with the Center for Teaching Quality.

The Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative is a movement of groundbreaking educators: Smart, savvy, thoughtful, committed teachers who won’t accept the status quo of the education system and who take advantage of and catalyze policies that allow them to design and run their schools as a team — sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly, shifting the power to teachers.

Like insurgent political candidates, teachers in teacher-powered schools have an entrepreneurial spirit, are willing to take risks, and accept responsibility for those choices in order to create better schools for their students. Like changemakers inside state assemblies or the halls of Congress, these teachers have the power to improve the who, the how, and the what of education.

Over the course of this blogging roundtable, we are going to look at how these teachers — with collaborative leadership, shared decision-making, and student voice baked into the teacher-powered model — promote the habits of healthy democracy. We will examine how students are transformed by witnessing and practicing these habits themselves and how teacher-powered creates engaged citizens.

With close to 150 teacher-powered schools nationwide, there are countless examples of this. Take a look at how teacher teams use teacher-powered practices and structures to create positive change, showcase a different way of running schools, and model democracy for students.

Social Justice Humanitas Academy

Jeff Austin didn’t plan on designing and opening a school. He loved teaching AP government, enjoyed his teaching partners, and was passionate about his students at his traditional, comprehensive high school. What he didn’t love were the complaints he heard from students about other teachers who dismissed those students’ struggles. With a few colleagues, he asked for and received permission to start a program where students would stay in one wing of the school for English Language Arts and history, and a teacher team would work with that cohort of students — ensuring they were treated with respect and their educational needs were met.

After experiencing a bit of autonomy, Austin’s team wanted more. When the Los Angeles Unified School District’s pilot school opportunity opened up, they went for it. They gave up holiday breaks and weekends to write their design proposal, and they co-created a brand new school — securing one of the coveted spots at the new Cesar Chavez Learning Complex to open Social Justice Humanitas Academy (SJHA).

Students were able to see what happens when they use their voice. They were able to recognize their influence, which, when met with their teachers’ dedication and problem-solving, led to the creation of an entirely new school.

The teacher team’s success has been widely documented and celebrated. Today, despite the poverty and violence that plagues their community, SJHA has a 94 percent graduation rate and a suspension rate under 1 percent. Austin is now the principal, and the teacher team continues to design and make decisions for and with students.

Reiche Community School

Reiche Community School in Portland had the distinction of being labeled Maine’s first failing school in 2008. A new principal came into the school and focused on building leadership capacity in the team, used collaborative leadership practices, and set up structures that supported shared decision-making. She was so good at her job that she was moved to another school to create the same turnaround there.

During the transition, the Reiche teacher team didn’t want to lose the collaborative decision-making practices and culture that had helped them turn their school around, but there wasn’t a way to be teacher-powered in their district or state. So they got creative and built relationships and partnerships with their union, parents, board members, and district admins — a winning coalition. The team proposed and was granted a Year of Exploration to research and convert to a teacher-led school.

Today, Reiche strives to empower students and families, particularly those from the school’s large immigrant population. Teachers eagerly volunteer to cultivate a culture of communication between the school and families. They host multilingual meetings to keep families informed and engaged. Students see their teachers working proactively and transparently to ensure all stakeholders are welcome.

After being Maine’s first failing school, Reiche is now Maine’s first teacher-powered school — and their students are succeeding. Their success inspired the Maine legislature to create a special Innovation Zone status for other teams who want to use this type of governance at their own sites.

Souderton Charter School Collaborative

Souderton Charter School Collaborative (SCSC) is one of the oldest charter schools in Pennsylvania. As with many teacher-powered schools, SCSC, was designed to fill a need in the community. Founded in 2000, Wendy Ormsby and her husband were inspired to start the school to serve K-8 students like their daughter who were bright but struggled with learning challenges. Inclusion, hands-on learning, strong parent partnerships, and focus on each individual child remain pillars of their school.

Coming from a business background at Johnson & Johnson, Ormsby envisioned a distributed leadership governance structure for the school, one with a collaborative culture and and a value on adult learning. As Julie Cook recently wrote in her blog, “[T]eachers [are] not merely implementing others’ ideas and policies. They [are] leading the way.” Taking on hybrid roles, many teachers are able to stay in their classrooms and take on administrative and coaching duties. Their unconventional school governance success is evident in student data as well as in their very low teacher turnover rate.

Students see the hybrid responsibilities of teachers and better understand how their school is governed. They also develop a better understanding of their own learning: Each student at SCSC has an Individual Learning Plan, and student and teachers work together deliberately on goal-setting and reflection. Students are part of the conversation on how, why, and what they learn.

Teacher-powered flips the traditional hierarchy and reimagines teacher and administrator roles at schools. Instead of mandates coming from above, teacher-powered governance, autonomies, structures, and practices shift the decision-making to the collective team of teachers at a school site. Teacher-powered is happening in charter schools, district schools, in unionized teams, non-union teams, in all environments, and all grade levels.

Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote, “The ‘good’ schools in this country haven’t managed to defeat the lies that undermine our system so much as they’ve been able to circumvent them.” Teacher-powered teams like SJHA, Reiche, and Souderton Charter take advantage of and create opportunities to circumvent the system. They rise above the noise and promote constructive, respectful dialogue around contentious issues and intentionally keep students at the center of decision-making. They model a different way of running schools — one that is more democratic — one that engages teachers, families, and students.