Q&A: Union Head Discusses Problems With Teacher-Run School

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In the fall of 1991, the Benjamin Jepson Magnet Elementary School opened, fulfilling a long-held dream of a group of New Haven, Conn., teachers. The school was run by a teacher "facilitator,'' rather than by a principal, and offered a nongraded program that stressed parental involvement. (See Education Week, Nov. 6, 1991.)

Last month, however, citing 31 student transfers and complaints by parents that the school was poorly run, the board of education appointed a principal to manage the school.

Assistant Editor Ann Bradley talked with Frank Carrano, the president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, about the problems at the new school.

Q. What happened at Jepson?

A. Hopefully, this is a temporary thing. We had some problems just sort of working out all of the details of how the facilitator should function, the teachers' role, and the parents' role. Together with working on the curriculum for an ungraded school, it just got to be a lot to do.

The superintendent [Reginald Mayo] decided that his way of dealing with the stalemate would be to send in a principal and then reconsider the decision in June. So our hope is that the staff ... and the parents together can get the school back to being a teacher-and-parent-run school for the fall.

Like everything else, one of the things we didn't realize is that it takes a period of time just to get acclimated to both the way a school such as this operates and the decisionmaking part of it. What are the appropriate roles for everyone to have?

It's also important whether or not the system supports an innovative program such as this by providing alternatives for the people at the school which are different from choices they give a regular school. The way the bureaucracy functions in any school district, there are certain decisions which the principal makes. There's very little time given to the principal to process the options, the priorities in having to make a decision.

Schools such as this need to adapt that system so it provides the additional time and the opportunity for collaboration.

Q.What is the enrollment at Jepson now?

A. Between 140 and 150 students. The parents continue to be extremely supportive of the school, ... but some decided that this was not the school for them.

Q. I understand that 31 students left the school.

A. I don't think that's really an issue, because parents who make a decision to have kids enrolled in a school such as this are not always sure of what the program is until they are there. When we made changes in the fall to bring the program in line with some of the concepts around nongraded schools that require students to move from teacher to teacher, there were some parents who didn't really want that. They wanted their child to be with a particular teacher for most of the day; they found that unacceptable.

Q.What has the federation's response been to the appointment of the principal?

A. Our position has been to try to persuade the superintendent not to do it. We felt that the situation begged for more support and more time. In fact, the staff and parents have come up with an alternative proposal which would put in place a management team, as opposed to the facilitator and staff. Basically, what was operating was a facilitator, carrying out the day-to-day responsibilities of carrying on the building, and then the staff and parents in a totally separate group.

We have been talking with one of the magnet high schools, a teacher-run high school, where they have a facilitating-team approach. We have worked through a proposal that would have put that in place. It would have included a representative of the staff and parents working with the facilitator in a decisionmaking mode, and then reporting back to rest of the staff and parents. We thought, based on the experience at the high school, that it would work more effectively, and we're asking for an opportunity to implement it.

Q. What is happening at the school now?

A. They are working it out, trying to work out some kind of relationship. It's not an easy thing for [the principal] to have stepped into a situation where a majority of people didn't want her to be there. It happened just before Christmas break, so we're hoping they will work out a collaborative relationship. We want to focus on getting all of this reconsidered in the spring.

Q.You don't see the problems as jeopardizing the entire idea of the school?

A. At this point, I don't. The superintendent has given his word that he is willing to reconsider, and the board of education has said the same. I want to be optimistic that we can work through this period and get back to moving forward with the concept.

Q. And the school continues to be ungraded?

A. Absolutely. In and of itself, focusing on that, on the program and the organization of the school, learning about it is taking a lot of time. They were overstretched. Ideally, if I were doing it again, I would have taken a year just to ease into it, to have the staff work together, and to work with the parents. We had almost no time at all.

Q. Is it that important not to have a principal?

A. I can't really answer that right now. I don't know, in the scheme of things, how important that is. I think it is important to at least give them an opportunity to see whether it does make a difference with respect to the level of commitment of teachers and parents to a program they feel totally a part of, that really represents the consensus-building type of thing.

It is just my perception that it would make a difference. I saw what teachers were willing to do, by way of extra time that they put in and the amount of energy they put in, because they view it as theirs.

I think something like this deserves an opportunity to see whether or not it does make a difference.

Vol. 12, Issue 18

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