Education Opinion

Why So Few Opportunities to Create New District Schools?

By Joe Nathan — April 21, 2015 10 min read
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Today Joe Nathan offers responses to a question that Deborah Meier asked.
Deb, last week you asked a terrific question: " How come there are so few Tony Alvarados to start districts (as the East Harlem district which allowed educators to create new schools within schools), or unions like Boston’s to initiate Pilots (within district options?).” I asked people around the country, including teacher union presidents, former teachers/school administrators, and district and/or charter educators. Here’s what they said.

Ted Kolderie, who has won an Education Commission of the States award for his influence on pubic education, wrote: “Isn’t it obvious? There are so few ‘arrangements’ (like the NY community-district system of those years) that permit/encourage the appearance of such innovative leaders
There are relatively few master mariners in Chad. No ocean on; no ships to sail in....

There’s so few of these people because there’re so few of those necessary opportunities for them. Like, so little opportunity to sail in the Sahara. To get more of the kind of educator (that Deborah) wants, create more opportunities. Don’t ask people to do what can’t be done in the traditional district setting. “

The St. Paul, Minnesota Federation of Teachers has proposed creation of new site-governed schools, and giving existing schools the option to be site governed.

Denise Rodriguez president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, responded, “A union can’t do this work alone. We need a shared vision among our school board, district administrators, parents and educators, working together to create innovative programs to meet the needs of our diverse learners.

St Paul schools are among the most diverse in the country. As such we need different solutions to meet the needs of our students. At SPFT we believe the best decisions are made with parents and educators working together creating innovative programs for our students.”
Joe’s comment: While the teachers’ union has been interested, the current board and superintendent have not made this a priority.

Dr. Tom King, a retired St Paul Public School administrator who helped create a very innovative district public school, believes: "... there needs to be a “confluence of serendipities,” to quote another school reformer from my bygone days, and such confluence is hard to find.

It requires a visionary leader, access to resources, a receptive and supportive public, willing teachers, and kids and parents who will buy-in. The reason they are so singular is the rarity of the essential serendipities in the same place at the same time.

That said, ever onward. Even small gains are better than no gains at all.”

Mary Cathryn Ricker, formerly St Paul Federation of Teachers, president, now American Federation of Teachers executive vice president responded (in part): “I have a question back: How does Deborah know there are so few Tonys? Or so few unions like Boston’s? I can’t get in the mind of a superintendent, but I will challenge the premise of the union question.

Framing union innovation as scarce is a common tactic of those who want to tell the story of the “status quo-protecting” union about us. In reality there are large and small unions with creative ideas all over this country. Not all of the creative, innovative ideas fit in the same box: some have amazing peer assistance and review programs, others have deep and productive community engagement work happening, others have designed innovative idea around diversifying the teaching profession or filling hard-to-staff license areas, others have negotiated autonomy in the form of teacher-led schools or teacher-led decision-making, and more.

I reject her scarcity assumption and, instead, say the productive question is “What are the characteristics of a union that prioritizes teacher- designed and lead schools? What are the conditions needed for them to succeed? And I have a few ideas about those answers. :) Thanks for asking, Joe!

In New York City, Dr. Richard Welles leads the Coalition Of Community Charter Schools. This is a collaboration of nearly 100 independent community based charters in New York City. He responded: “When I was a principal in a public school district with several schools at the same level as mine, woe betide me if I tried something different at my school. Parents at other schools wondered why their school wasn’t having team-teaching too (or whatever the different approach was), there were teacher union objections - even when my teachers were fine with our plans. Board members were worried, my superintendent wavered (even though I’d fully briefed him), and my colleague principals shook their heads at me and some avoided me in meetings.

Eventually, I tired of the endless politicking to convince people that what we thought was good for our school was worth trying, even though it was ‘different.’ I moved on to independent schools and independent public charter schooling.”

Dr. Bob Wedl, formerly a district public school educator and later Minnesota Commissioner of Education wrote: “First, change is met with resistance at every turn. Governor Rudy Perpich used to say, “Trying to change education is like trying to move a cemetery. There is no internal support.” Look at all the obstacles built into many of the charter laws as an example.

2. In the district sector few boards, superintendents and principals are interested in turning power over to others. But the new superintendents are a different crowd and are beginning to change.

3. The major charter organizations are focused on replicating the district sector schools only a bit better. They have little interest in innovation. So they influence changes in federal law to make the chartered sector like the district sector.

4. Getting adequate start-up funding is so difficult (which is part of #1). Very few states appropriate state funding for start-up

5. Most educators want to teach, they don’t want to devote enormous time to creating schools, recruiting students, hiring and training staff, dealing with uncertainties.

But clearly the main reason why teachers are not starting new schools such as with the Boston Pilot Schools is that legislators have not enacted laws giving them “permission” to do so. That is changing in Minnesota and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and new superintendent are working together to make this happen. The St Paul Federation of Teachers has bargained to get a provision in their contract to enable teachers to have more authority and autonomy.”

Wedl also believes: " Schools do not have to have different student outcomes to be have different schooling models. While I work the redesign side focused on different standards, different measurement as well as different schooling models, we also need schools that have the same standards and measurement as the usual district schools but that use a redesigned instructional model.

But we have had very few folks stepping up to do that. Chartering has been with us for 25 years. The teacher-led model passed the Minnesota legislature in 2005 and was improved in 2009 and perhaps an appropriation in 2015. Laws with millions of dollars for design and start up of magnet schools have been on the books for more than 30 years. So opportunity has been there for a long time.

The biggest obstacles, in my view, are the willingness of teachers to take on the current system. That is a huge professional and financial risk. But clearly some are. Teachers in Staples-Motley are the best example in Minnesota of teacher commitment to design and operate a school even with full support of an innovative-minded supt and district board. Their vision and commitment is amazing. This group of former “voc ed teachers” wanted to start a career-technical academy in cooperation with the Central Lakes College and the business community. I believe this was 2008. First they tried chartering with the district as the “sponsor” but MDE would not approve it. So they went site-managed (following the 2009 law) but the union would not sign off. So they tried chartering again...but MDE would not award a start up grant. After three years of trying unsuccessfully to get a charter start up grant the teachers gave up...but the supt and board did not. They asked the teachers to go the site/teacher led model. The union, led by a new local president, was going to support it until Education Minnesota entered the picture. The school is flourishing. But how many folks are willing to do that?

The Alternative School crowd has likely done this better than most but they are not respected by their peers even though they have real success with students the “regular school” has failed. Go figure.”

Dr. Gary Gruber a retired New Mexico educator who has worked with district, charter and independent schools wrote: “Having been an integral part of three school start ups, including being the founding Board Chair of a charter school here in Santa Fe, (Monte del Sol), I know many of the challenges. However, the other side of the coin is the reward. Toward that end I want to share my most recent blog with you, which I hope you will enjoy.

He continued, " I think part of the resistance for passionate, visionary school leaders to start new schools comes from several sources:

1) dealing with some district bureaucracies, regulations, testing, etc. All of the administrivia that seems to have little to do with educating kids....

2) My daughter works for one of those “pilot” schools in Boston and the challenges of the socio-economic gaps are enormous. Making up for deficiencies in family life becomes a significant part of the process.

3) Starting a new district or a new school requires a huge amount of time, energy and talent and it can be all consuming with precious little left over. If you want to be consumed and burn out doing what’s needed, then OK. Maintaining a balance between a personal and professional life in these situations can be very difficult....”

Deborah, our mutual friend, Dr. Sy Fliegel, one of the architects of the East Harlem School Choice (district) school choice effort wrote: " Alvarado did not create a new district; he became superintendent of an existing district and dramatically changed district 4 into a successful district that encouraged educators to create small alternative schools with different themes or educational philosophies. Joel Klein allowed educators to create new small schools in existing buildings. He also encouraged new charter schools to become part of his system and provided space for them in regular public schools. I am sure there are creative supts in places that we don’t know about.”

Keven Kroehler, who helps educators create “teacher led” schools, responded: “I think there are many more of these leaders than we actually see.. there is currently no permission to educate differently...In fact it is illegal to do school differently....

A groundbreaking serendipitous event would be a law allowing truly innovative educational programs to exist along side existing programs and not require them to be measured by the same standard as traditional programs. A new standard (portability instead of sound quality) is what allowed cell phones to emerge as a new technology.

It’s like this. Education is like a football game and referees know how to assess football games. Innovation is like a track meet, but we send the football referees to judge the program. They look around and wonder why the sprinters aren’t tackling each other on their way to the finish line. They look at the discus and wonder why there is no one out in the field to catch the throw. They finally watch the pole vault, see the athlete go over the bar through the uprights and signal a field goal. Finally something they think they understand.

Until we as innovative programs are allowed to be judged by legitimate standards we will continually be squashed. Right now we can be as innovative as we want as long as we look like the traditional programs. Once that changes we will see many amazing and innovative leaders emerging!”

Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.