City Academy in St. Paul, Minn., isn't just another charter school that happens to be run by teachers--it's the grande dame of all charter schools. Opened in September 1992, it was the first charter school in the country.
The school, located in a recreation center in a low-income neighborhood, offers a year-round education to students who have either dropped out of or were asked to leave other schools. This fall, the enrollment stands at 90, with students ranging in age from 13 to 40-something.
The 12-person, principal-free staff runs the school cooperatively, meeting once a week around a giant "dining room" table to hash out administrative and policy decisions. Milo Cutter, one of the school's original teachers, says that the cooperative-management idea came in part from a desire to demonstrate to students, many of whom come from broken homes, that adults can and do work together successfully.
"I think in the beginning it sort of feels artificial--you aren't sure if it's real," says Cutter of the egalitarian arrangement. It initially felt clumsy, she says, "almost like we were trying to buck nature."
So the teachers tried to smooth out that awkwardness right from the start. They invited a psychologist to observe their faculty meetings to make sure all the decisionmaking didn't fall into one person's lap. "In the traditional pyramid, you point to the decisionmaker," Cutter says. "If that would happen, if someone would perceive a decisionmaker, the psychologist would say, 'Now how are we going to solve that?'"
But now--having been in this business for four years--the teachers think they've gotten cooperation down to an art form. "It took a while to say, 'OK, the rest of the world is going to do it this way, and this is what works here,'" Cutter says. "The communication seems to be smoother the older we get."
Another distinguishing characteristic of City Academy is that its teachers, unlike those in a number of charter schools, are closely allied with a union. City Academy's staff members belong to the Minnesota Education Association and the National Education Association. And Cutter herself serves on the national advisory board for the NEA's charter school initiative.
Seeking union membership was a smart move for Cutter, says Ted Kolderie, a charter school advocate and education analyst with the Center for Policy Studies, also based in St. Paul. "If policy issues come up, she speaks as one of the dues-paying members."
Cutter says she can understand why people might have skepticism about charter schools, particularly when they're managed in such a nontraditional way. "Not everybody would choose to work in a system that operates this way," she adds. "It really takes some rethinking."
Still, Cutter believes one of the most valuable benefits of the academy's structure is the teachers' constant evaluation and repeated questioning of their own work.
"For teachers, this is a monumental change in taking a role in decisionmaking, she says. "You also take a role in responsibility for results."