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Q&A: Teacher Describes School She and Her Colleagues Created

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In an effort to take their own ideas and create a new learning environment, six teachers at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore have formed a teacher-run "school within a school'' there.

Scheduled to open for 6th graders next fall, the program may be expanded to include 7th and 8th graders as well.

Muriel Berkeley, a developmental reading teacher at Roland Park who is spearheading the effort, spoke about the project with Staff Writer Joanna Richardson.

Q.
What prompted the teachers to get together and devise this new school plan?

A.
We started in the fall of 1991 talking about the fact that we thought there were many students that we were not reaching.

We began talking about what could we do differently, [because] the system wasn't working. It wasn't enough to say that we weren't being creative enough in the classroom, though certainly that might be part of it.

And it wasn't enough to say that people weren't coming prepared, or we didn't have parental support, though all of those things might be part of it. But there had to be a way to restructure the way the system, our school, works, to bring teachers and students together on the same team.

It seemed to us that so much of the time we are almost doing battle with out students, as opposed to working together, and learning doesn't happen that way.

At first, we came up with a lot of grandiose plans. Then we decided that what we would do is carve out a piece that is doable and start there. I met with our principal with another teacher, and she gave us the go-ahead to start planning our school, [which] would open in September 1993.

Q.
How will the school be organized?

A.
Our goal is to open with about 160 students, maybe less. That's assuming a class size of 40. What we feel is that, if we have an idea that's going to work, it has to be realistic. And our class size this year is roughly 40 in the middle school. So we thought, let's not ask for any favors. If we're going to do this, it has to work under realistic conditions.

Our school groups [students] by test scores in the middle school. The team of teachers' philosophy would be for heterogeneous grouping. But we have an advanced academic program at the school that is well-known in the community and to parents. We felt there was no reason in making any efforts to change that, and it probably wouldn't be welcome.

Our hope is that we will be able to create a program that will be exciting enough and strong enough that, over time, it will become more and more heterogeneous, because parents will get to know it. But for this year, we will take whomever the school assigns to us, and we expect to be assigned the students who have the lowest test scores.

Q.
What kind of learning approach will the school take?

A.
It will definitely be interdisciplinary, having all teachers working together. The group of teachers that start the system will move along with their group of students to the 7th grade and to the 8th grade.

The reason for that is [that] a big part of what we want to do is develop a nurturing environment, a community. We feel that, especially for urban children, so much of their life is impersonal. And schools are often impersonal places. But if we could continue a more nurturing environment, that would help establish the trust that lets learning happen.

My feeling is that, at one point in time, students sort of came to school with this automatic trust for teachers or enforced trust by parents.

But today, in the urban environment anyway, there's enough distrust between different groups of people that, often, children come into school, and the parents aren't sure they trust the teachers.

Q.
How do you think students, or middle school students in particular, will benefit from the arrangement?

A.
We seem to be dealing with more and more young people who don't have a sense of community, who don't fit, who don't know where they belong. It's important for a school to provide that.

There's another important aspect to teacher-directed programs, though.

If you are in a big impersonal school as a teacher, and somebody's always telling you what to do, maybe you do stop thinking about taking responsibility yourself.
Empowering teachers to realize that they have information that nobody else has because they're with students every day is very important. It's energizing.

And I really think, although originally we came together in [1991] out of concern for the students, as we continued, it's been as much a concern for ourselves.

The power to have some control over what we're doing, and to share that control with the parents and the students, will help all of us.

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