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Star Potential

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This school doesn't have a principal–just students and teachers.

Welcome to a typical morning at Constellation Community Middle School, a school that is anything but typical. You may have walked past the crowds of people going to work in the business district just a few blocks down Pine Avenue. Perhaps you were drawn to the school's small sign or the displays of students' science projects hanging in the windows outside this former department store.

Inside, you've found all 132 students gathered in the large front room, where they are reciting the pledge of allegiance and the school's guiding principles. The school's five teachers, who are standing around the perimeter of the room, make a few brief announcements: Today, there's a reminder about an upcoming holiday dance and an admonishment to keep food away from the computers.

The teachers and students then file down the narrow, bare-walled hallway into their respective classrooms to begin the school day. It's only after they've shut the doors, in the ensuing silence, that you begin to realize how strangely alone you feel. You'll discover two aides in the main office, but you won't find a principal, vice principal, or counselors. Farther down the hall, you won't run into any librarians, security guards, or custodians. In fact, you won't find anyone else in the school except the teachers and students, who are now spending their time focusing on exactly what they say they're here for--teaching and learning.

And as you walk up and down the hall, you'll see plenty of tangible evidence of what the school has gained by eliminating administrative personnel: a lab full of spiffy new computers, not to mention the smallest class sizes of any middle school in Long Beach.

Constellation, a charter school now in its second year of operation, was started by two teachers who had a vision of re-creating a school's organizational and budget process to reflect their "foundational belief" in the interaction between student and teacher. That interaction, the teachers believe, is the most important part of a child's education outside the home, and all resources and energies should be directed toward it. It's not that there's anything wrong with administrators or staff, they say, it's just that when resources are tight, a school has to keep its priorities in focus.

Like a handful of other principal-free charter schools that teachers have started around the country, Constellation has been able to capitalize on the flexibility that the state's charterschool law and the school district afford it. This public school's regulatory and budgetary freedom gives teachers the control to manage the operation as they see fit.

The administration-free routine is no walk in the park.

But as the Constellation faculty and others have found, the administration-free routine is no walk in the park. For starters, teachers are left on their own to work through the tangle of payroll and accounting procedures. They shoulder additional responsibilities in scheduling, budgeting, planning activities, communicating with parents, and maintaining the building. And for all the extra time they put in, they're often at odds with the local teachers' union and its contract requirements.

Still, those hurdles haven't caused any second thoughts for the Constellation faculty. It's a matter of trade-offs, the teachers say. They'd rather have the extra responsibilities in this system--and the accompanying autonomy--than the limitations and sometimes nonsensical administrative requirements they've worked under in the past.

The Constellation idea began quite literally in the middle of the night for Jim Norris, one of the school's founding teachers. He had served on a restructuring committee at a nearby middle school with other teachers, and his quest for a new school model had driven him to insomnia.

"I woke up in the middle of the night, and the word 'constellation' popped into my head," Norris says. The "constellation," he says, refers to a group of "stars": parents, students, and teachers. That same night, he typed up a nine-page proposal that has remained largely intact as it evolved from a school-restructuring proposal into a blueprint for an entirely new school.

The school's budget is not only its most distinguishing characteristic but also an expression of the school's mission.

Constellation's charter calls for a small school jointly run on a day-to-day basis by the faculty. On the school's year-round calendar, teachers work an extra 20 days a year to allow time for staff development, curriculum planning, and conference attendance. A governing board made up of five staff members, four parents, and one community representative votes on school policies.

To hear Norris tell it, the school's budget is not only its most distinguishing characteristic but also an expression of the school's mission. In the early planning stages, Norris estimated that after bureaucratic expenses, only $1,900 of the state's $3,200 per-pupil allowance actually made its way to the classroom. "We just wanted a much larger piece of that to reach the classroom," he says, "and we had to do without people to make that happen."

The principal's post is a case in point. In his old school, Norris says the principal came into his class about once a year. Students would, of course, go to the principal's office for discipline. But as Norris calculates it, at roughly $60,000 a year for the principal's salary and benefits, that amounted to about $250 to $300 per referral to the office.

Maintenance costs fell under the same scrutiny. Norris says his old classroom used to be swept once or twice a quarter. And when the paint in his classroom was peeling, he learned it would cost the school $5,000 to repaint it. "When I pay one of these people $5,000 to paint our classroom, that's coming on the backs of our kids," he says.

All of this is not to say that Norris is opposed to having additional school personnel. He says the school's staff roster would look different if he had a per-pupil apportionment of, say, $10,000. "I'd keep it small, but I'd hire a full-time administrator--I wouldn't be messing around with payroll. But when there's no money and you're spending one-third of your resources outside of the classroom, this makes no sense to me."

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