School & District Management

In Minnesota and U.S., Teacher-Powered Schools Take Root

By Madeline Will — April 18, 2017 8 min read
Tessa Horstmann, a tutor at Impact Academy at Orchard Lake, helps Ashton Ruiz learn to identify letters. The Lakeville, Minn., public school is among an estimated 115 teacher-powered schools that are operating in 18 states.

At Impact Academy, one of a growing number of teacher-powered schools across the country, teachers’ fingerprints are all over the purple walls, even though they can’t really be seen. That’s because the school’s layout, its mission, the style of learning—everything is decided by the teachers themselves.

For longtime teacher Julene Oxton, the fingerprint analogy may even be literal: With family members, she tore down a classroom wall to make way for a different kind of learning environment. In 2011, Oxton had been part of a small group of teachers with a vision for the school, then known as Orchard Lake Elementary. It called for more personalized learning, fewer top-down mandates, more teacher collaboration, and fewer silos.

Breaking away from the 11,000-student Lakeville district, about 30 minutes outside Minneapolis, and becoming a charter elementary school felt like their only option. But the district superintendent asked the teachers to stay, and in 2013, the school board voted unanimously to let the teachers open a student-centered pilot program at Orchard Lake.

This school year, that program has been expanded to all 428 students at the school, which was renamed to reflect the change. Now, Impact Academy at Orchard Lake is officially considered a teacher-powered school, meaning its 34 teachers have the autonomy to make decisions about a variety of areas, including curriculum, assessments, and the physical learning environment—including whether to create open classroom spaces without walls.

Teachers work together to identify reading levels for each of their students during "genius hour" at Impact Academy at Orchard Lake Elementary in Lakeville, Minn. Impact Academy is a regular public school led by teachers—one of 24 teacher-powered schools in the state.

A reported 115 teacher-powered, or teacher-led, schools are operating in 18 states, and advocates suspect that the real number is much higher. The goal of the Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative, a program of the nonprofits Education Evolving and the Center for Teaching Quality, is that in 30 years, every teacher in the country will have the option to work in a teacher-led school.

Minnesota is one of the centers of the movement—it has 24 teacher-powered schools, more than any other state except California. Teacher-powered schools have been around since the 1970s, but supporters sense they’re in a moment now.

“If you look at the new type of learning that is being asked for by parents and communities—personalized and student-centered—and the struggles to retain and attract and satisfy teachers, as well as the natural organic spreading of the [movement’s] ideas, I think that’s coming together to make this really the time for this model to grow more exponentially than it has for the past 10 years,” said Lars Esdal, the executive director of Education Evolving.

Oxton, now Lakeville’s innovation coordinator, is seeing the model spread firsthand. Inspired by Impact Academy, teams of teachers in two other district schools now have planning grants from the state to consider what it would mean to make their own decisions about student learning.

An ambassador for the Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative, Oxton seemingly never tires of telling Impact’s story.

She has learned a few messaging tricks along the way: You can’t rush change. Never use the word “better,” although last year’s state test results for Orchard Lake showed that students who were in the Impact pilot pathway scored significantly higher than the students who were in the original pathway. And, most importantly, keep students at the center of all the decisions.

“We’re not fighting against anything,” Oxton said. “We’re trying to change the system.”

A Growing Movement

Teacher-led schools vary widely in the degree to which teachers can control what goes on in them. The Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative identifies 15 areas of teacher autonomy that range from those focused on instruction, such as determining curriculum and learning materials, to fiscal and administrative powers, like allocating funds, setting the schedule and school policies, and making staffing decisions. There is no minimum number of areas of autonomy a school needs to have in order to be considered teacher-powered.

Despite the name, most teacher-powered schools do have principals. The difference, supporters say, is that the principals are accountable to the teachers.

Impact Academy’s principal, Marilynn Smith, sees her role as a buffer between teachers and the district. While the district has been supportive, Smith said, the school is “still a small cog in a very big system,” and she’s had to fight to increase teacher voice in some district-level decisions.

“I want to be a leader I would have wanted to work for when I was a teacher,” she said. “I have instructional expertise, but they have way more of it. So why would I go in and say, ‘This is how you should do this, this is how you should do that?’ ”

Since Impact Academy’s teacher-powered model is new, Smith said the staff is still figuring out its decisionmaking processes: When does everyone need to be at the table? There is no set process now, but Smith has been educating teachers about district and budget policies so they can make informed decisions.

“Sometimes, it’s a slower process, and that’s OK,” she said. “Sometimes, I’m like, ‘Well, I can make that decision [myself], but I’m not going to.’ You need to develop people. People aren’t going to automatically do this.”

A state grant enables the school to fund planning time. Last year, the Minnesota legislature established a $500,000 grant program for teacher-powered schools within districts. Schools exploring the idea can apply for a one-year planning grant of up to $50,000, and schools that already operate as a teacher-powered school can apply for a one-year implementation grant of up to $100,000.

Impact Academy and two other Lakeville schools have planning grants and hope to get implementation grants next year, if the program is funded again. A fourth district school applied for, but didn’t get, a grant.

Student-Centered Learning

On a visit in March, students from kindergarten to 5th grades were learning math in a wide-open space in Impact Academy. Years after Oxton’s family knocked down one wall, the district paid $400,000 to remove some others and transform the learning space. A kindergartner can now look all the way down the room to see a 5th grader.

Students Milayna Johnson, left, and Daisy Villarreal work on an assignment at the school, where students are grouped for some lessons based on their skills rather than their grade levels.

Impact Academy is split into three vertical, K-5 communities. During a community’s math and English/language arts instruction, the six groups of students are taught by their teachers simultaneously in an open space. Despite the large number of students in the room, most of the children were on task—which teachers attribute to students being grouped as learners, not by grade. Before each math or ELA unit, students take an assessment screener.

The walls were knocked down to remove any stigma for a child going to a different room. Instead of a 4th grader having to go down the hall to the 2nd grade classroom during math time, a student can just walk a few feet to his “right-fit” group.

Tutors, English-as-a-second-language teachers, and special educators are there to give individualized attention to students performing below grade level.

“We’re not just meeting kids where they’re at and being complacent in that, we’re helping them get caught up,” Oxton said.

The arrangement also breaks down silos for teachers, Oxton said, calling it “highly embedded PD.”

“Because you share kids, you have to talk about instruction,” she said.

There was a community feel to the space—when one teacher had to step out in the middle of the lesson, she called to her colleague nearby, asking him to watch her students.

“I think the collaboration piece is huge—feeling like you are a team and these kids are yours together,” said Leah Johnson, a 2nd grade teacher.

Collaboration was a priority for teachers when designing Impact Academy. In addition to their professional learning community time, teachers in each community meet weekly for 100 minutes to reflect on instructional strategies and go over student data. The teachers opted to cut one instructional period a week of both science and social studies, so they can collaborate while students take music or art or work in maker spaces.

Teachers’ ability to make at least some decisions about the schedule is part of the five areas of autonomy that Impact Academy has. To varying degrees, teachers also have the power to determine student assessments (with the exception of Minnesota state tests, which the school still must administer), the learning program, how to measure school success, and staffing.

To acquire that autonomy, Oxton and the other teachers have had to work closely with all stakeholders, including the district, the school board, the teachers’ union, parents, and the community. Lakeville is an open-enrollment district, and some students at Impact Academy are from nearby districts.

It hasn’t been smooth sailing, the teachers acknowledge. But the main goals of student-centered, personalized learning have aligned with the district’s strategic plan.

Lisa Snyder, the district superintendent, said she embraced Impact Academy’s model because she wanted to create a learning environment “where there would be no achievement gaps, no labels, and kids could simply show up to learn.”

The district is still mulling how to give more autonomy to teachers, Snyder said: “This isn’t the norm for a big school district.”

But Snyder will leave the district in June, leaving some worried about the future of teacher-powered schools here. Impact Academy’s teacher autonomy is not all in writing, Smith said, which is an issue that she and the teachers are grappling with.

“My hope [is] that enough teachers have been empowered to be decisionmakers, to be creators and co-creators, that that attitude and mindset will continue in the culture of the district,” Snyder said.

Meanwhile, teachers are still working on getting more autonomy and strengthening what they already have. For example, teachers want to be able to set professional-development days, rather than follow the district schedule.

“For me, the teacher-empowerment piece is very validating,” said 3rd grade teacher Michelle Johnson. “It helps you be a reflective teacher, having and knowing your beliefs and passions. When teachers have a mindset of being empowered, you naturally get that from children.”

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 2017 edition of Education Week as In Minn. and U.S., Teacher-Led Schools Take Root

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