Teaching Profession Opinion

Teachers Lead the Way in Denver

By Lori Nazareno & Phi Delta Kappan — March 28, 2014 10 min read
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In 2007, I reached what I thought was a dead end. I had been teaching for 20 years, achieved my second National Board Certification, and founded an organization of National Board Certified Teachers in my district. I was not interested in becoming an administrator or going to central office because I loved teaching kids to love science. At the same time, I longed to influence even more students’ lives. What else could I aspire to as an accomplished teaching professional? How could I lead without leaving the classroom?

One day I received a phone call from Kim Ursetta, then president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, about an incredible opportunity. She wanted to know if I was interested in designing and launching a school that supported some of Denver’s most vulnerable students while also creating the professional environment that accomplished teachers so craved. From this space, we began to envision what ultimately became the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA), a teacher-led school that is part of the Denver Public Schools.

MSLA opened in August 2009 as a K-2 school that grew out of a collaborative effort among parties who are often at odds: teachers, the district (Denver Public Schools), and the union (Denver Classroom Teachers Association/Colorado Education Association/National Education Association).

More than 500 teachers applied for the initial 12 teaching positions and others quickly applied for teaching jobs that would open the following year when the school expected to add another grade. MSLA is now a K-5 school that enrolls 310 students and employs 22 teachers.

MSLA was intended to serve students in southwest Denver. Typically, 70% of MSLA’s 310 students are English language learners, 95% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 95% are Latino. The school is 100% a school of choice, which means that the school has no boundary and students from all over the Denver metro area apply to attend the school. There is no entrance criteria or qualifications; students who live in the immediate area are given first priority and then seats are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. In cases where there are more applicants than there are seats, the district conducts a lottery and assigns students to the school.

At MSLA, teachers collaborate to make authentic and substantive decisions about how the school operates, seeking to meet each student’s needs. At teacher-led schools, teachers hire their own colleagues—and when appropriate, fi re them—observe and evaluate one another, decide what professional development will best meet student needs, set budget priorities, determine staffing structures, and more.

About 60 teacher-led schools operate in the United States, although many more have started and closed or returned to traditional models.

Time for Teacher-led Schools

Schools and teaching have changed very little over the last 150 years in America. Sure, there are new props in classrooms—interactive whiteboards and satellite images rather than chalkboards and globes. But the structure of school experiences and teaching policies remain static. America clings to an industrial model of education even as nearly everything else about society transforms rapidly. We can’t afford to prepare students for a world that no longer exists.

We must shift away from schools in which teachers are factory workers whose role is to efficiently assemble uniform “products.” To prepare students as knowledge workers who will succeed in tomorrow’s economy, teachers must themselves operate as knowledge workers.

MSLA is showing how we can transform schools and the teaching profession. Each day, these teachers practice and model the skills that they’re charged with instilling in students. Teachers have ample opportunities to solve problems, collaborate, think creatively, take risks, persevere through challenges, and learn and lead with one another. Even as a veteran teacher, the professional stretch I experienced at MSLA helped me better understand the competencies my students needed to master.

Ted Kolderie of Education Evolving says, “If you want better people for the job, you need a better job for the people” (Kolderie, n.d.). The truth of the matter is that we already have “better” people on the job; we just never changed the job so those people could have as much effect on how and what students learn.

Although teachers have been required to hold bachelor’s degrees for about 50 years (Angus & Mirel, 2001), the structures of schools never changed to account for this highly educated workforce. Every year, bright, capable, and well-educated professionals enter teaching only to find themselves in factory-like positions that do not honor their knowledge and expertise. The current command-and-control environment in schools likely has a lot to do with the 50% attrition rate in the first five years of teaching. “Better people” need and want a “better job.”

Teacher-led schools can offer the kind of working conditions that the knowledge workers of today and tomorrow crave. Creating those conditions is what has enabled MSLA to survive and thrive.

Professional conditions

Teacher-led schools have a relentless focus on what is best for the students they serve. This focus is reflected in the design of the schools. Research told us that experiential learning would help our largely low-income Latino population build upon and deepen their prior knowledge as well as develop their language skills, so we incorporated service learning and passion areas into the school day. We also recognized that Latinos are sorely under-represented in mathematics and science majors and careers — and acknowledged that high-quality instruction in these areas can help students develop 21st-century skills. So we decided our elementary school would have a focus on math and science.

We knew we had to attract the strongest, most accomplished teachers for this school. We wanted teachers who could prove their effectiveness, accept responsibility for student outcomes, and design learning experiences to meet students’ unique needs. We did not need teachers who would thrive in a command-and-control style setting. The collaborative leadership structure that we designed helped us attract the accomplished teachers we needed. These teachers own what happens at the school.

The district and union collaboration that started the school set the tone for MSLA. But that was just the start. At MSLA, all teachers are part of at least one decision-making team. Teams include professional development, peer assistance and review, data, instruction, technology, and climate and culture. Each team has a representative on the School Leadership Team, which ensures that all decisions and actions are aligned with the larger mission, vision, and goals of the school. A complex set of interactions — involving lots of collaboration and communication—helps ensure that all teachers are leaders and contributors to the greater good of the school.

In Leadership and the New Science, Margaret Wheatley (2006) describes ownership as “the emotional investment of employees in their work... the powerful emotions of belonging that inspire people to contribute.” She goes on to say that “people support what they create…. We cannot talk people into our version of reality because nothing is real for them if they haven’t created it.”

At MSLA, teachers are able to create the conditions under which they work, which feeds a sense of ownership and shared responsibility. There is no longer anyone else to blame if something doesn’t get done or something doesn’t work. When the collective makes a decision, the collective must share responsibility for the implementation and results. “When push comes to shove, there is a truer sense of ‘all hands on deck’... I feel more responsible for ‘our’ children,” said Zachary Rupp, founding music teacher at MSLA.

The first line in the NEA Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching report, Transforming Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learning, is, “We envision a teaching profession that embraces collective accountability for student learning balanced with collaborative autonomy that allows educators to do what is best for students” (2011). Collective accountability coupled with collaborative autonomy attracts great teachers to MSLA—and helps keep them there.

Parental Ownership

The second key to the survival of MSLA has been the parents, who appreciate that their children’s teachers clearly have bought in to their success. Ruth Ocon-Neri, one of the current lead teachers at MSLA, became familiar with the schools as a parent. “I chose this school for my son because the teachers were running it. Teachers know what’s best for students. Empowering teachers is powerful for students,” she said.

The level of ownership that parents feel toward the school also contributes to its success. Parents know they’re a valued part of the school community, that their voices are heard, and that their opinions help guide the direction of the school.

After only three years in operation, the district was considering moving MSLA to another building. At that point, the school was not yet fully built out, and there was concern whether the model could survive such a significant change. The staff approached parents to gather their thoughts and invite them to weigh in on the decision. In response to the proposed move, the parents organized themselves to voice their concerns at the district level. Ultimately, the school did not move, largely because of parent opposition.

Legal Structures

One of the concrete ways that the district and union collaborated to create MSLA was by securing waivers from the Colorado State Board of Education, thus allowing the school to operate without a principal. The district, local school board, and union also collaborated in creating a memorandum of understanding to accompany the local collective bargaining agreement, replacing the word “principal” with “lead teacher.” These legal documents, while quite technical in nature, have contributed to MSLA’s operational success as a teacher-led school.

District and Union Support

Collaboration didn’t just set up the paperwork for MSLA’s success. Because the founding teachers, district, and unions helped create the school, all have a stake in ensuring its continued success. Of particular significance is the support for lead teachers in terms of school operations and the responsibilities normally reserved for a principal.

Principals have numerous responsibilities, which, if handled well, are never seen by teachers. Although an accomplished teacher is likely well-equipped to be an instructional leader, the job of school leader comes with other managerial responsibilities. Among the ways that the district and union helped MSLA in this area was by connecting lead teachers to former principals who acted as advisers and mentors. These former principals coached the lead teachers through the various responsibilities traditionally addressed by someone in the principal role. This support structure has remained in place as part of the commitment to supporting school leaders across the district. The district and union have also been supportive of efforts to design and implement a peer assistance and review process where teachers observe, give feedback, and evaluate each other. Engaging in this process required modifications in both district policy and master agreement that were quite significant and required a considerable amount of collaboration.


If schools are to become what students need them to be, then students must see their teachers engaged in cognitive challenges that push their creativity and collaboration. Through this modeling, students can begin to develop those skills themselves. Teachers need the autonomy to incubate and execute their own bold solutions while both teaching and leading. That means schools must change from the conveyor-belt industrial model to an individualized learner knowledge worker model. Redesigning schools in these ways will more effectively prepare the citizens of tomorrow.


  • Angus, D. & Mirel, J. (2001). Professionalism and the public good: A brief history of teacher certification. Washington, DC: Fordham Institute.
  • Kolderie, T. (n.d.). Teacher professional partnerships and other arrangements, Part 2: Better jobs for the people. www.educationevolving.org/teachers/partnerships
  • MetLife, Inc. (2013). The MetLife survey of the American teacher: Challenges for school leadership. New York, NY: Author. www.metlife.com/assets/cao/foundation/MetLife-Teacher-Survey-2012.pdf
  • NEA Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching. (2011). Transforming teaching: Connecting professional responsibility with student learning. Washington, DC: Author. www.nea.org/assets/docs/Transformingteaching2012.pdf
  • Wheatley, M.J. (2006). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

All articles published in Phi Delta Kappan are protected by copyright. For permission to use or reproduce Kappan articles, please e-mail kappan@pdkintl.org.


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