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On any given day, the teachers have an extra hour of instruction and 30 more minutes of supervision than their district colleagues.

Constellation's budget draws directly from district funds, without any supplements from outside contributions. When it comes time to draft the school's budget, the teachers discuss priorities, draw up a budget, and submit it to the governing board for approval.

The teachers also distribute copies of the budget to the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders so they can review it, too. Norris even incorporated the budget into his math lessons last year. (When students saw the line item devoted to a lump sum representing teachers' salaries, Norris remembers with a chuckle, "all the calculators flew out.")

Yet the students have been taught to understand the realities of the budget trade-offs. "When they say, 'We want lockers,' we pull out the budget and say, 'OK, what do you want to give up?'" Norris says.

And since the students are responsible for cleaning the classrooms, hallways, and bathrooms, the teachers pose a similar question when students say they want a custodian: "Where do you want to cut $30,000?"

Still, the middle schoolers take a certain pride in the role they play in balancing the budget. When asked how they feel about not having a principal and taking on custodial duties, their candid response is almost always the same: The school saves a lot of money, and it's been able to afford new computers as a result.

And the students understand that their average daily apportionment, which nets about $20 a day per student, is what keeps the school in business. "We average about 97 percent attendance," Norris says, "because the kids want to be here so they can contribute their $20."

So how do teachers' duties at Constellation differ from those at other schools? Behind the classroom door, there's not much to distinguish them except for smaller classes and a high degree of teacher-student familiarity. But on any given day, the teachers have an extra hour of instruction and 30 more minutes of supervision than their district colleagues. Plus, the teachers estimate that they spend five to eight additional hours each week on administrative responsibilities.

The typical schedule calls for sessions from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Monday through Wednesday. The faculty teaches regular courses in the mornings and reading and elective courses in the afternoons. On Thursdays, school gets out at 1 p.m. to allow for teacher planning, meetings, and other activities. And on Fridays, the whole school goes to the park or to the beach from 12:30 to 3 p.m. for the physical activity they miss by not having a playground.

At lunchtime, the teachers make up for the lack of a playground by acting as hosts in their respective classrooms. On a recent Thursday lunch period, for instance, one teacher offers to let students listen to Mariah Carey on a tape deck in her classroom. Another arranges to show a movie on the VCR in the unfurnished common room, where students sit cross-legged on the industrial-carpeted floor. As the movie rolls on, the teacher circulates around the room with a giant trash bag for students to dispose of their lunch bags and wrappers.

It's at the once-a-week faculty meetings where Constellation teachers' unusual status is most evident.

When school lets out at 1, another teacher oversees a small crew of students on cleanup duty and is later called on to run interference when a tussle breaks out near one of the bathrooms. Afterward, he and two other teachers meet behind closed doors for an appointment with the parents of a struggling student.

But it's at the once-a-week faculty meetings where Constellation teachers' unusual status is most evident. Since there's no faculty lounge, the meetings take place in the school's makeshift library, a small windowless room with a smattering of bookshelves, yellowed books, and rickety wooden chairs.

Mary Ruffner, the teacher who founded the school along with Norris, moderates. She specializes in conflict management and resolution. "Faculty meetings all of my life were very one-way," Ruffner says. "Now, we sit down at a table and say, 'This is a problem, how are we going to handle it?'"

At a recent meeting, the sometimes spirited discussion lasts for more than two hours, well past 6 p.m. Ruffner reads the agenda from a list that all five teachers and the two aides have drawn up together, with plenty of impromptu questions and asides contributing to the egalitarian mood. Topics of discussion include a proposal to buy bicycles so the school can teach cycling and offer a bike trip, a discussion of who will judge the dance contest at the upcoming Halloween party, and a status update on negotiations with the teachers' union. The teachers also propose elective courses they could teach in the afternoons next session, including aerobics, Spanish, photography, music appreciation, and conflict management.

Christopher Quint, one of the school's 6th grade teachers, says that the meetings are a far cry from faculty meetings he has known. "At my other school, they seemed like this big black blot in the day," says Quint, who oversees Constellation's facility maintenance and community contacts. "In my first year there, I voiced my opinion about things, and people looked at me like I was crazy. Now, you get something done, and it feels good. There's no back-biting. There's real work taking place."

Having teachers claim ownership in the administrative process is more than a practical matter.

Zobeida Castillo, the school's other 6th grade teacher, was a police officer before becoming a teacher. After teaching at another school, Constellation appealed to her, she says, because she wanted to be able to work more independently in the way she had as an officer. "I was used to being on my own," says Castillo, who is in charge of the school's purchasing and parent-involvement activities. "I like that I feel like I am one of the bosses or one of the principals."

"They're fun--we really enjoy the meetings," adds Ruffner, who, aside from teaching 7th grade and an elective course in conflict management, is also responsible for governing board meetings, payroll, and student activities.

Ruffner adds that having teachers claim ownership in the administrative process is more than a practical matter. In doing so, she says, they serve as good role models for students, who are learning to take responsibility for their own actions in her conflict-management course. And even though it has been time-consuming--and difficult--to manage the school, Ruffner believes the Constellation model could easily be replicated.

"Any school in Long Beach could do this," she declares, "as long as you have a common understanding and commitment."

Vol. 16, Issue 11

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