As students streamed inside Reiche Community School one Monday morning, I heard a third grader exclaim, “I’m so glad to be here today!”
My colleague and I shared a knowing smile that summed up how we were feeling: We were glad to be there, too.
Reiche Community School in Portland, Maine, is a complex, urban elementary school. We have a high rate of poverty and transiency. More than 40 percent of our students are learning English as a second language, and of those students, half are newly arrived in this country with little to no ability to speak English. Fewer than 50 percent of our kindergarten students have attended preschool, and last year, 32 of our students were homeless at some point during the school year.
This means that in a class of 20 students, at least six will arrive or leave in the middle of the school year. Eight students are learning English, but at least two will speak virtually none. Students have a myriad of social and emotional needs, and their reading, writing, and math performance will range widely from significantly below grade level to significantly above.
To meet the needs of our students and their families, it is imperative that all staff members work collaboratively and in a highly focused manner. This is where the “power” comes into “teacher-powered school.” In schools like Reiche, teachers collaborate to design and lead both student and school success.
But Reiche wasn’t always teacher-powered. In fall 2010, our principal transferred elsewhere, and we were interested in becoming teacher-led. However, staff members knew we weren’t going to be handed the keys to the school overnight–nor were we prepared for that scenario.
So the 2010-2011 school year became one of exploration. We were empowered by the district to investigate different governance models, and through an NEA grant, we researched, attended conferences, and visited other teacher-powered schools around the country. We reached out to parents in the community and got their feedback. Ultimately, we discovered that there were many teacher-powered schools around the country, but very few had made the switch from a traditional, principal-led model to teacher-led.
After weighing all our research, in 2011 we voted as a school to try the teacher-powered model. We drafted an agreement between the Portland Education Association and Portland Public Schools, making Reiche the first teacher-powered school in Maine.
Today, instead of a traditional principal, the school’s leadership is driven by four committees and a leadership team of teachers who collaborate with parents to ensure that our vision and values are reflected in our school community.
And it turns out that when teachers are empowered to make decisions about how and what they teach, they rise to the occasion. We are constantly pushing ourselves to make continuous school improvements through ongoing professional development. We also use multiple methods of measurement and data collection to inform curriculum planning.
For instance, last year we realized that because of a new district contract, we would most likely be asked to extend our teaching day. So we decided as a staff to proactively seek out a grant to have the National Center on Time and Learning come in and help us assess how we were using time in the classroom. As a result, we were able to carve out opportunities to be more efficient during the school day and help improve student learning.
I know what you’re thinking: “The inmates are running the asylum. Who’s holding them accountable?!” We are. Working in a teacher-powered school has actually increased our accountability— to one another, to our school model, and to our students.
Staff members are expected to take part in leadership committees to make sure systems are in place for student support. They determine what professional development we need, and our professional development meetings have since become more meaningful, productive, and enjoyable. And since we are a public school, we still adhere to district, state and federal mandates.
Best of all—it seems like our approach is working. When staff and family surveys were conducted by the district in 2014, Reiche received significantly higher perception ratings than any other school. Since Reiche became teacher-powered, parents have become more involved in providing enrichment activities for students. The local Parent Teacher Organization also plays an important role, recently stepping up to be a driving force in improving technology at our school.
On the flip side, if a parent has a challenge with one of our teachers, they’re more likely to address it with the teacher directly instead of going over their head to a principal, resulting in less confusion and more direct action.
The extra hours spent doing committee work, governance, and building community partners are a small price to pay for greater autonomy to produce better, more holistic outcomes for students.
The culture of a teacher-powered school increases communication, transparency, and collaboration. It also tends to operate from a resource model rather than a deficit one. Instead of making excuses for why we can’t do something, we are more empowered to take ownership and to find solutions for making things happen.
When was the last time you heard your student or your colleague say they were glad to be at school? We hear it all the time.