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"There's no doubt that sometimes a more autocratic model is more efficient, still, I think this is a pretty tight ship."

Nancy Hunt,
professor of education, California State University, and mentor for the Accelerated School

In fact, Constellation is only a few miles away from another principal-free charter school in South Central Los Angeles. At the Accelerated School, located in a residential area bordering on an industrial strip in one of the city's most troubled neighborhoods, four teachers have taken the lead at a K-6 school of 82 students.

The school's co-founders, Kevin Sved and Johnathan Williams, split their time between teaching and administration. The two other teachers work full time in the classroom. In addition, a teaching aide helps out in each of the school's three multiage classes.

Like the Constellation founders, Sved and Williams were idealistic, energetic teachers who broke away from another school to turn their vision of education reform into a reality. In this case, the school follows the accelerated-schools model pioneered by Stanford University's Henry Levin. Its underlying theory dictates that schools should have high expectations for all children and should incorporate the community of parents and families.

Like the Constellation model, the school, which opened its doors in the fall of 1994, also encourages participation from all levels. "It becomes a habit," says Sved, sitting in the small faculty lounge. "You want to know what other people think. You know their feedback can make it a better decision."

As if to illustrate his point, another teacher walks in and poses a question: A student has asked to leave her class to join the celebration for her cousin's birthday in another class. "Do we have a policy on that?" the teacher asks. "I don't know, what do you think we should do?" comes Sved's reply.

The Accelerated School's faculty meeting reflects a similar collegial atmosphere. Sitting around a classroom table eating ice cream sundaes in the late afternoon, the four young teachers mull over such issues as enforcement of the school's uniform policy.

It appears that students are wearing the right colors but not the right apparel. They're showing up in white undershirts, for example, instead of button-down shirts.

"I think you're going to have acrimony," offers one teacher.

"Don't say 'you,'" teases another.

"I say 'you' because I'm going to send them right to you," laughs the first teacher.

"Maybe we could relax it a little bit this year and enforce it next year," suggests a third teacher.

Working through such issues can be cumbersome, says co-founder Williams, but the problem-solving process is part of the school's mission. "Everybody's got to be able to put their issues on the table," he says. "We all have had to compromise, and that's a part of it."

Nancy Hunt, a professor of education at California State University, Los Angeles, serves as a mentor for the Accelerated School and attends faculty meetings frequently. "They have some decisions they make without consulting, but Johnathan and Kevin are always willing to go back and say, 'Let's think about it together,'" Hunt says. "It's always an issue--which decisions can be made by a group and which can be made by an individual.

"There's no doubt that sometimes a more autocratic model is more efficient," Hunt adds. Still, she says, "I think this is a pretty tight ship."

A tension exists for Constellation's teachers in dealing with the union.

At the district and the union level, teacher-led charter schools offer both promise and pitfalls. Constellation's Norris says he's thankful the Long Beach school district has been open to innovative leadership experiments. And the teachers agree that working with the district has become easier now that they're beginning to master the maze of payroll and purchasing rules.

But tensions have continued to surface as the school pushes for more autonomy in its spending decisions--autonomy the district is not used to providing. After all, it is the district, which approved the charter proposal, that must assume ultimate responsibility for the school.

From the teachers' point of view, it's a simple matter of accountability. They say they want to make their own budget decisions and are prepared to take full responsibility for them. Ruffner, who signs the checks at Constellation, puts it like this: "If we blow it and end up with no money by March, it's our problem, not theirs."

A similar tension exists for Constellation's teachers in dealing with the union. Four of the school's five teachers are members of the Teachers Association of Long Beach, a National Education Association affiliate.

Norris acknowledges that his school has received more support from the union than teachers running charter schools in other districts. But the fact remains that many provisions outlined in the union contract simply do not apply to the teacher-led management structure. And as those issues become evident, the teachers have pushed the union to grant them exceptions.

Grievance procedures, for example, are a moot issue at principal-free schools like Constellation. After all, the whole point of teachers working together is being able to settle grievances among themselves. Currently, the Constellation faculty and the union are trying to iron out contract language relating to such issues as pay for a longer school day and an extended school year calendar.

Though the teachers have so far been able to settle several contract issues, Ruffner wonders why the local union isn't more proactive in its support of schools like Constellation where teachers rule the roost. "If we as a group say this is what we want, then they should be supporting us--they should be celebrating this," she says. "Why aren't they celebrating what they have been promoting forever?"

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