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Published in Print: March 27, 2002, as Doing It Their Way: Teachers Make All Decisions at Cooperative Venture

Doing It Their Way: Teachers Make All Decisions at Cooperative Venture

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Gigi Dobosenski is a first-year teacher at Minnesota New Country School. She's also a curriculum developer, a staff recruiter, a performance evaluator, a school spokeswoman, and a maintenance worker.

Besides handling those roles, Ms. Dobosenski is part owner of the nonprofit organization hired by the school's board to run the charter school. As a member of the EdVisions Cooperative, the 26-year-old is authorized to help make most of the decisions that affect the life of the school and the children she teaches.

"I don't have to worry about my school board making a decision that will hinder my students' learning," the teacher said one day recently, as she took a break from class in the 125-student, one-room schoolhouse here. "I have ownership."

The cooperative was set up under Minnesota's pioneering, 11-year- old charter school law designed to encourage innovation in education. The 100 teachers and 45 other educational professionals who make up the democratic body pool their services, contract with local school boards, and implement teaching and learning programs in seven schools in Minnesota and one in Wisconsin.

In addition to giving instruction, members provide fiscal services, teacher preparation and development, academic and program evaluation, and grant- proposal writing. They also act as consultants to those planning to open charter schools.

"This is a real mechanism for empowering teachers," said Jon Schroeder, the director of the Charter Friends National Network, a nonprofit group based in St. Paul, Minn., that is an advocate for such schools. "There is no longer a question of elevating their rights and roles. We're leapfrogging over that issue into a whole new realm of responsibility and opportunity."

An Idea Conceived

A decade before the folks in the tiny farming village of Henderson, Minn., even contemplated a charter school, a handful of big thinkers from the Upper Midwest began talking about the importance of teacher ownership.

One of the biggest problems with the American education system, they concluded, was that teachers don't have complete control over the teaching and learning that goes on in schools, according to Ted G. Kolderie, the senior associate of the Center for Policy Studies, who was in on the conversations. The nonprofit organization is based in St. Paul and associated with Hamline University, a private institution there.

Public schools normally are under the governance of school boards, groups of well-intentioned community members who often know little about education policy or the business of managing school systems, Mr. Kolderie said. They, in turn, hire career professionals—superintendents and principals—to make the big decisions, or make them themselves.

While many school leaders do consider the opinions of teachers, more often than not such frontline educators are left out of the discussions of their superiors, Mr. Kolderie and others say.

For example, the curriculum in most public schools is chosen by administrators. Hiring and firing decisions are made by administrators. So are decisions about how best to spend school money, be it on textbooks or food service.

Teachers are, in fact, near or at the bottom of a very, very long food chain, Mr. Kolderie said. Such a structure results in the alienation of educators—the very people whose engagement is most valuable to students.

What would happen, he and others wondered, if teachers were put in charge of the big decisions? They might tackle problems in a new way—one that would always keep students' learning in mind. In fact, educators would likely do a better job than those currently at the helm, Mr. Kolderie and his colleagues figured.

But the idea remained just that until the Minnesota legislature, in 1991, passed the nation's first charter school law, allowing the creation of public schools that would operate free of most regulations in return for delivering results. Finally, the way was clear for a governance model that would offer teachers ownership.

According to the measure, educators could band together to form their own cooperatives, much the way farmers had for years. Cooperatives cannot form charters, though they can run them.

At about the same time, a group of parents and teachers living an hour or so south of Minneapolis, here in Henderson, launched efforts to open a charter school dedicated to project-based learning for students in grades 7-12. They imagined a school that would allow their children to pursue topics of interest under the watchful eye of teachers, whom they would call advisers.

To maintain accountability and to empower the staff members, instructors would be put in charge of hiring and evaluating one another. They'd also be responsible for writing the curriculum and drawing up a budget.

Upon hearing about the plans for what eventually became the Minnesota New Country School, Mr. Kolderie met with one of its designers in the hope of introducing the concepts of teacher ownership and cooperatives. The model could easily be applied to their charter school, he suggested.

"This [idea] was as novel as the school," said Ron Newell, a onetime Minnesota New Country teacher who now serves on EdVisions' board. "We knew we didn't need anyone from the outside telling us what to do."

And so in 1994, the charter school board hired the EdVisions Cooperative. All four educators who came to teach were required to join the cooperative, a policy that continues today.

Since then, seven other Minnesota charter schools—in Balaton, Mankato, Minneapolis, and St. Paul—have hired the cooperative to help them run their schools. The cooperative has also provided technical help to a charter school in Milwaukee. Some 1,200 students are enrolled at the institutions run by the cooperative.

"We would not be where we are today without EdVisions," said Gretchen Sage-Martinson, who teaches at the Avalon Charter School in St. Paul. "They gave us the nuts and bolts and were willing to share every single piece of information they had about charter schools' development."

Financial Gains

The EdVisions Cooperative's setup is democratic. Members have an equal voice in the policies and practices of the organization, and the majority rules.

Two levels of membership are offered: full and associate. Full members pay a one-time fee of $100 to buy shares in the organization and a $25 annual renewal fee, while associate members pay $25 annually. Those who own shares receive dividends—between $5,000 and $10,000 this year—but associate members are restricted from voting on some administrative decisions affecting the cooperative.

Although the cooperative is made up primarily of K-12 teachers and educational consultants, a farmer has joined. So, too, has an insurance agent and a retiree.

A board oversees the day-to-day business of the cooperative, Mr. Newell said. It includes two members from each of the eight sites where the organization is under contract, along with two at-large members. All members of the cooperative meet monthly.

Dues provide those who belong the privilege of working as free agents, Mr. Newell said.

Teachers may sign contracts with any school of their choosing, though no educators currently work outside the charter schools that have formal relationships with the cooperative. If such a scenario did play out, the school would be beholden to the cooperative's philosophy of teacher empowerment.While decisions involving personnel, curricula, and finances are made at each school, the cooperative legally has the right to veto such choices, Mr. Newell said. The cooperative will not enter into contracts with schools that do not allow educators to make such decisions.

Schools that do choose to work with EdVisions, Mr. Newell said, receive knowledgeable, committed professionals, and save money.

"The benefits are huge," he said. "We can save them 10 percent."

That translates into a savings of tens of thousands of dollars per school, according to Mr. Newell, because there are no administrators or outside consultants to pay.

The state provides charter school funding, at about $6,000 per pupil. Such schools do not receive money from local levies, as do other public schools.

Yet the cooperative distinguishes itself from management companies such as Edison Schools Inc., the New York City-based company that runs many charter schools around the country, because EdVisions was not designed to turn a profit, he said.

"The cooperative makes no management decisions," Mr. Newell said. "We provide [schools] with the concepts and the process."

'Opportunities Are Endless'

Educators who belong to the cooperative say they are freed up to do the work they love the best way they know how.

"This model allows people to be leaders in areas in which they excel," said David Greenberg, the lead teacher at El Colegio Charter School in Minneapolis and a member of the cooperative. "You have control in the hands of the people who need it to deliver education to students who need it."

In addition to teaching at the 80- student El Colegio, Mr. Greenberg is responsible for recruiting students, writing grant proposals, and providing discipline and lunch. The experience is nothing like his previous teaching job in the 45,000-student St. Paul public schools.

"The most important decision I made was when to hold yearbook day," Mr. Greenberg said, of his job in the regular public schools. "Here, we decide if we want to hire another art teacher or buy another computer."

"The opportunities are endless," Ms. Sage-Martinson of St. Paul's Avalon Charter School said. "My last job was great, but it was a dead end. I'd teach and teach and teach, but have no say in what I taught."

While cooperative members embrace the many roles they play, some say the workload can be downright overwhelming. Duties are distributed according to teachers' strengths and interests. Ideally, everyone has the same amount of responsibility. That doesn't always happen, though.

"There's still a sense that some of us carry a little more weight than others," Mr. Greenberg said. "I struggle with it."

Still, Ms. Dobosenski of Minnesota New Country School contends that she'd be logging just as many hours at another school.

"I'd spend equal amounts of time elsewhere, and it would not be nearly so rewarding," she said.

Firing Their Own

The support network is strong among the teachers because they're all emotionally, intellectually, and financially invested in their work, she said. They want badly to succeed, Ms. Dobosenski said, and will do what it takes to do so. Those who don't have the commitment or fail to perform up to expectations receive help. If they don't improve, they are let go.

The hiring and evaluation processes are determined by the cooperative members at individual schools, Mr. Newell said, but the ultimate goal is for all sites to employ "360 degree" reviews. Such models require evaluations that include input from all stakeholders: colleagues, students, and parents. Self-evaluations are also considered.

Last year, three of the 12 teachers at RiverBend Academy were fired, said Darla Carlson, who serves as the Mankato, Minn., school's business manager and the president of the cooperative. Staff members reviewed three months' worth of information about the teachers before making their decision. "It was really hard," Ms. Carlson said. "You go home and you say, 'We just changed three people's lives.' "

Some in the cooperative worry that the evaluation process is not as equitable as it could be.

The staff at Minnesota New Country School did not reward veteran teacher Dean C. Lind with a raise last year for the first time in his seven years of service here.

"Some of my students made complaints [about me] and got others to gripe," Mr. Lind said. "The only way I can be successful is if my kids are successful. No matter where my ego is, I have to accept that criticism."

Mr. Lind said he's changed his practice for the better with the help of his colleagues, but he argues a system needs to be put in place to hear teachers' challenges to unfavorable reviews. Fortunately, he said, he can do that because he's in charge.

"I can't imagine going to another school, because it is so much a part of me," Mr. Lind said of Minnesota New Country.

Teacher retention at EdVisions schools seems to mirror the national average, though Mr. Newell said it is difficult to pinpoint such figures when EdVisions schools are changing the number of positions they have annually. Since the cooperative took control of the eight schools, 14 teachers have left, five of whom were let go. Currently, the eight schools employ 52 teachers.

Moreover, some of the teachers who took jobs in the EdVisions schools were veterans, not rookies.

Nationally, about 30 percent of new teachers leave their jobs within their first five years in the profession.

The designers of the cooperative model are the first to agree that the system is not for all teachers. Yet, they argue, offering it as an option can greatly improve the nation's K-12 schools.

'A Whole New Bureaucracy'

Many, in fact, are hungry for such entrepreneurial endeavors.

More than 500 people visit the Minnesota New Country School each year to examine its many components, Mr. Newell said. Education leaders and community members from California to Florida have expressed interest in the cooperative model.

The effort also has been backed financially by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Seattle-based philanthropy awarded the cooperative a $4.4 million grant in 2000 to establish 15 new charter schools within five years.

"There is nothing to prevent an ownership model from being provided on a smaller or larger scale," Mr. Kolderie said, noting that the system can be changed to meet the needs of individual schools.

Others aren't so sure it could be replicated—or that it needs to be put in place at all.

"The idea of teachers having more ownership ... is important, and one I think we should strive for," said Eric Hirsch, the executive director of the Alliance for Quality Teaching, a Denver-based nonprofit organization that is working to professionalize teaching. "But the question is, how much applicability does this have to public education across different contexts?

"I think it would be dangerous to assume that across the board, teachers don't have the autonomy to make decisions they feel are best for their personal growth and student learning," Mr. Hirsch said.

What's more, he said, an ownership model "creates a whole new bureaucracy that can become unwieldy in itself." Such an arrangement would pose problems especially for larger districts, where decisions made by democratic vote would slow down school improvement efforts, he maintained.

Besides, teachers already are major players in many regular public and charter schools nationwide, said Barbara B. Kelley, the chairwoman of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, an Arlington,Va.-based organization that awards credentials to teachers who demonstrate high levels of competence.

"I don't believe the entire system is broken," she said, adding that change may be easier to make within the current system.

Others say that the cooperative model detracts from the concept of teacher ownership altogether.

Teachers have the power to open up their own charter schools under current Minnesota law, said Louise Sundin, the president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, a union that represents 5,000 educators.

"If it were a true teacher-leadership model, we wouldn't need the middleman," she said.

Those who already have bought in to the system, however, say educators need to take a chance on something new.

"No system is perfect, ... and this is better than the alternatives," said Ms. Dobosenski, the cacophony of the one-room schoolhouse swirling around her words. "I'll stay at least another year—if my colleagues will let me."

Vol. 21, Issue 28, Pages 1,14-15

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