Without Principal

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These latest visitors are educators and other interested observers who come to learn more about a school system that has taken the familiar jargon of reform--site-based management, shared decisionmaking, and teacher empowerment--and put it into practice in a ground-breaking experiment in running a school.

In a way, the experiment is a result of good timing. When the district's principal resigned just weeks before the start of the 1988-89 school year, the teachers' staff-development committee offered the local school board an interesting proposition: Rather than hire a new principal, it should allow a group of teachers to run the school. The idea wasn't entirely new; it had been kicked around the district for about a year, according to school board chairman Bob Suoja. But the principal's departure brought the perfect opportunity to move forward with the proposal. "We figured there was no better time to try it,'' Suoja notes, and the board gave its unanimous approval.

Thus was born SHARE--Staff Helping Administer Responsible Education. Now in its second year, the Hill City SHARE team, a six-person committee, handles everything from curriculum changes and budgetary decisions to student discipline and teacher evaluations--in short, all the traditional responsibilities of a principal.

The transition from principal to SHARE team has not been entirely free of difficulty or controversy. Issues that are discussed in the team's two-hour weekly meetings probably could be resolved in 10 minutes by a principal. This timeconsuming process of decision-bycommittee has been perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the experiment for some teachers, parents, and students. In addition, many Minnesota principals remain vigorously opposed to the team-leadership concept, and even some of Hill City's own staff members express mixed feelings about the experiment. Students' unhappiness with the new system came to a head a year ago when they staged a oneday walkout that drew support from some parents.

The student walkout typifies the sort of unanticipated complications the team has encountered. They've had to grapple with issues that are far removed from the daily lives of most classroom teachers--even as they carry full teaching loads. And the team members freely admit that there has been a lot of trial and error as they learn the fine points of school administration.

But with more than one full year of experience behind them, the SHARE-team members now find the going a little easier. No one claims all the problems have been resolved, but the benefits that the group and other Hill City teachers report--improved morale, better communication, a more comfortable atmosphere at school, greater control over the issues that affect them--suggest that the new system is a success so far.

Suoja compares it to starting a business. "The first year, you're always going to have problems,'' he says. "But now, I think the school is running better with the SHARE team than with a principal.''

Circumstances clearly were right for the Hill City experiment. In addition to the principal's resignation, the necessary practical and philosophical framework was already in place for the SHARE team to build on. School counselor Linda Bauer, one of the team members, quickly spotted the school's potential when she was hired five years ago. "It has money, it has support, it has a cohesive, trained staff with a lot of experience,'' she says. "The building is beautiful, and the town loves its school. So you had a lot of things going to make this successful.''

Superintendent Darrell Nelson says the school's 28 teachers also were accustomed to being consulted on a range of issues. "We weren't necessarily working toward the goal of having no principal,'' he explains. "But we were trying to get back to the staff and have all of them involved in the decisionmaking. I think it's possible because we have a good system, and it's small and manageable.''

Part of the push toward more teacher involvement in decisionmaking came from Hill City's participation in the Minnesota Educational Effectiveness Program, which offers training and support to school-based teams of teachers, principals, and parents on topics such as goal setting, conflict resolution, and staff development. MEEP is just one of many reformoriented programs in a state with a long tradition of educational innovation. That tradition notwithstanding, the Hill City district still had to convince state officials of the SHARE team's merit. Because the Minnesota Board of Education must grant a waiver before a school can operate without a principal, ultimate responsibility for the experiment lies in St. Paul.

Richard Mesenburg, who directs the state's Office of Educational Leadership, was familiar with Hill City through MEEP, but he still pushed the school's staff to outline a clear vision of what they wanted to do and why they wanted to do it. "We were concerned that they not simply move to a staff committee to avoid hiring a principal,'' he says. "That was not the option we were looking for. When we felt assured that they had made the decision because they wanted to try some new models, we were comfortable with it.''

If there's one guiding philosophy behind the new Hill City model, it's the belief that decisions are best made by the people who are closest to the situation. That can mean anything from an experienced teacher evaluating a nontenured novice to a custodian offering advice on the best way to deal with a maintenance problem. It sounds simple enough, but the SHARE team has discovered the difficulties in keeping everyone informed of what's happening at the school. Communication, they have found, is the glue that holds the system together.

"It's one of those things that you have to keep working on all the time,'' says team member Jack Burt, a high school science teacher. "We can't just sit back and be happy with it, because we end up finding glitches where we don't communicate very well, and then we have to backtrack and make sure we do communicate. You get caught up in your day-to-day teaching, and sometimes it just becomes hard to make sure you have all the bases covered, although I think we've done that pretty well.''

The team approach should promote communication because there are now six staff members for other teachers to talk to about their concerns. When the staff-development committee conceived the SHARE team, there was no established size for the group; everyone who volunteered was allowed to serve. One teacher left the school after the first year, but the other initial members--two elementary teachers, two secondary teachers, the counselor, and the former principal's secretary--are all in their second year.

Back when the principal was the school's only administrator, personality clashes sometimes got in the way of effective communication. English teacher Loren Brown, who is not on the SHARE team, says, "I just didn't like dealing with somebody who was younger than I was, had less experience than I did, had never been in a classroom before, and was telling me what to do.''

Along with the improved communication-- enhanced by weekly staff meetings--has come a more comfortable atmosphere at the school. "Paranoia'' among the teachers has been reduced, Brown notes. "I think there's a little bit less peeking over your shoulder to see if somebody's watching to keep track of what you're doing,'' he says. "It's a lot more professional in that respect.''

At the same time that the new management approach is making teachers feel more professional, it is also helping alleviate some of the everyday annoyances that can wear teachers down. Who, for example, knows better than teachers about the consequences of regular interruptions in the school day? Taken separately, visits by college representatives, classring salesmen, and military recruiters, as well as special activities such as homecoming week, don't seem like a big deal. But, Burt points out, they can add up to a lot of time out of class. "For years, we've been trying to get fewer interruptions,'' he says. "That was one of the things our faculty wanted to see and we worked on it. We still have interruptions, but we try to keep them to a minimum.''

SHARE-team member Jan Ferraro, a 4th grade teacher, points to another change since the committee took charge: She believes the new system has awakened teachers to the needs of the entire school rather than just those of their own students. Even in a district as small as Hill City's, it is relatively easy for the elementary and secondary teachers to remain isolated and focus only on their separate concerns. The two sections of the school are on different floors, so, in the past, it would not have been unusual for a high school mathematics teacher to know nothing of what was going on with Ferraro's 4th graders.

But that is changing, Ferraro notes. One result of the new awareness is that more teachers are volunteering for activities that affect the whole school. Says Ferraro, "We're seeing teachers take lunchroom duty, bus duty, hall duty--duties that they generally don't like to take.''

The superintendent reports that his job is easier now, as well. "A lot of times I ended up as a mediator between the principal and a teacher or a group of teachers,'' says Nelson. "Decisions were made that the teachers didn't view in the best interests of education or in their best interests. With the increased morale now, there haven't been any grievances. We used to go into negotiations and it would take a year or more to settle the contract. This last one was settled in one meeting.''

Discipline problems in Hill City are the usual small-town fare--tardiness, unexcused absences, fights, an occasional student caught drinking. The SHARE team rarely needs to spend a lot of time dealing with those problems, so they devote more of their attention to weightier matters such as the school budget and relations with parents. As much as the teachers would like to de-emphasize their role as disciplinarians, however, discipline has probably been the biggest source of contention in the school, and it clearly was a factor in last year's student walkout.

From the teachers' perspective, it's an improvement when the whole staff takes more responsibility for the entire school. But to students, it can mean something very different. "It feels like you're being watched all the time,'' says Denise Gillson, the student-body president.

In the past, Gillson says, students who got into trouble "could go to the office and get it over with.'' Now there are delays--no doubt agonizing to the student involved--before the situation is discussed and possible punishment is imposed by the team. A new system has been created to deal with problems that can't be resolved in the classroom: When students are sent to the office, they fill out a form that provides information about the particular offense. The student then goes in front of the SHARE team, usually before class the next morning.

The way team member Dennis Holsman sees it, that delay is not necessarily a bad thing; it can give students time to think about their offense and maybe even discuss it with their parents.

Jack Burt has some sympathy for the students, who may find it intimidating to face six people rather than just one. But, he points out, "We tend to get only the serious offenses. Our staff as a whole does a pretty good job with their own discipline in their classrooms. They can assign detention and that sort of thing.''

Nevertheless, not all the teachers agree that the new system is an improvement. Says Brown, who is clearly one of the more outspoken staff members: "When you involve a number of personalities and opinions, it gets difficult to come up with a final solution. I feel that many times the issue has been clouded when it has been brought before five or six people.

"To me, that's where a principal comes in,'' he adds. "He's the guy that makes the call to the truant officer or to the parents or sets up the appointments. Some of that's being done, but everybody has their other duties as well.'' Brown's solution would be to hire a half-time principal to deal primarily with discipline.

The student walkout of 1989 probably will be talked about for years by succeeding generations of Hill City students. It's one of those dramatic events for small-town teenagers-- full of peer pressure, the risk of punishment, and an opportunity to express some innate rebelliousness, especially after a long Minnesota winter. The consensus around town seems to be that the high school students didn't walk out last spring because of one event; rather, poor communication and miscommunication were to blame.

"We didn't think that things were getting done correctly,'' Gillson says. "The SHARE team was handling a lot of matters, but it was forgetting about the students. We were being missed somewhere along the line. Everything kept building up until we walked out.''

Burt concedes that the SHARE team's first year was marked by lessthan-adequate communication with the students. "This year,'' he says, "we're trying to make sure that we're including our students, getting feedback from them so we know what's happening.'' As a result of discussions with students following the walkout, a student representative is now allowed to participate in the team's meetings.

Parents, obviously another concerned party, turned out in large numbers at a post-walkout town meeting and put Burt and the other team members in the hot seat. "That was one of the hardest things I ever had to do,'' Burt says. "But I think it was one of the best things that happened in our school, because everybody found out what was going on. There were a lot of misconceptions. As those dissolved and people understood how things were going, it wasn't such a big deal anymore.

"If things aren't going well, this is a good scapegoat,'' he says, adding that people typically blame the principal or the school board. "All in all, I think the majority of parents in the community think things are going O.K.''

Joyce Grimsbo, the mother of a 9th grader, agrees. As chairman of the school's planning, evaluating, and reporting committee, she has supported the SHARE team from the start, and she believes all the discussion that followed the walkout convinced some community members to reconsider their opposition. "I didn't like seeing all the publicity coming to the school,'' she says. "But it had some positive results. Most people in town seem to support [the team] now.''

However, as team member Holsman puts it, "There are still people saying that the fox is guarding the chicken coop.''

One of those people is former school board member Esther Lange, who opposes the SHARE project partially on philosophical grounds. "I think [teachers] could help a principal, but I still think somebody should be in charge,'' says Lange, whose seven children all attended the school. "It's bound to take away from their teaching.''

Some of the concerns raised by the students also continue to simmer one year after the walkout. The event is unlikely to be repeated, but Gillson still senses "friction'' between students and teachers, much of it relating back to discipline. Like teacher Loren Brown, she believes the students would prefer that the school hire a single disciplinarian.

Students themselves are partially to blame for any lingering uneasiness. Although they can participate in SHARE meetings, their representative's attendance has been sporadic at best, Gillson admits. That lack of student enthusiasm is not hard to understand. The agenda for one recent meeting included such topics as a handbook for substitute teachers, program grants for math and science teachers, purchase-order requests, and staff workshops--all important matters, but none likely to arouse much student interest.

Spacious is not a word that one would use to describe the SHARE team's meeting room, which used to be the principal's office. It's crowded enough with the six team members around the table, and their open-door policy-- literally and figuratively--often brings others to the meeting room, too. Except in matters that involve confidential information, the team welcomes visitors, whether they're staff members, students, representatives from other school districts, or unhappy community members.

On one wall of the office hangs a list of the committee's long-term priorities: Absence policy, teacher evaluations, and parent-teacher conferences top the list. In the middle of the table sits a copy of the school budget, there for handy reference when an item involving money is being discussed. Jan Ferraro, who has become something of a budget expert for the team, can quickly flip through the yellow document to find the entry she's looking for. If a 6th grade teacher wants to order new workbooks, for example, Ferraro can see whether money is available in the textbook budget or in some other area.

This comfort with the budget is a new experience for the teachers. "We've never hidden any information from the staff, but there seemed to be a distrust of monetary figures,'' says superintendent Nelson. "Now they're directly involved in seeing where the money comes from, and they're involved in spending it. If they come in and want to add a program or do something different, they've got to find the money for it in the budget.''

The team is responsible for the vast majority of the district's roughly $1.7 million annual budget. Transportation and food-service operations are among the few items they do not deal with. In its first year, on top of all the other challenges, the group received some unwanted on-the-job training when it was forced to make budget cuts. After consulting with the entire staff, they recommended cuts to the superintendent. The same painstaking process occurred when the money was later restored by the state.

"I've learned much more about the budget than I ever intended to,'' says Burt. "But I think this group can do this now as well as a principal.''

Ferraro cites some changes the SHARE team has made using its power over the budget: It has allocated more money for elementary classroom expenses, expanded the school's interactive television program, recommended various textbook purchases, and increased the budget for the growing band program.

Money matters on a smaller scale have caused some discord among the staff. One source of friction is the $4,400 annual stipend the district pays SHARE-team members, who, like most principals, work on 11-month contracts.

"I have a problem with the money,'' says Loren Brown, who believes it is wrong that SHARE-team members are paid considerably more than teachers involved in other extracurricular activities. "I think they should be paid less or they should be paid on the same scale as anybody else who's paid for extracurricular activities.'' Brown coaches drama and athletics and serves as senior-class adviser.

A quick response to that criticism comes from Dennis Holsman, who has a unique perspective on the matter as both the school's athletic director and a SHARE-team member. "If we're going to pay this position,'' he says, "let's not make it an example of another poorly paid head coach in the Hill City school district. We're on this SHARE team because we want to see it succeed, but we've also got a chance to be paid. And let's be realistic; I'm not going to say, 'Here, keep the money.''

Adds Jack Burt: "It's a lot of work and hassles. You face some agonizing decisions that you don't like to make but you have to. And a person should be compensated for those things.''

The stipends come out of what used to be the principal's salary. That way, the money will be available if the experiment is stopped and a new principal is hired.

A bigger concern right now is whether other Hill City teachers will be willing to serve on the team, given that the job entails a large amount of time and stress-- in addition to teachers' regular duties. Burt, sort of a selfappointed SHARE-team philosopher, believes that the experiment cannot be considered a complete success until every teacher on the staff has served on the team. But he isn't sure that will happen.

"I hope it doesn't die out because nobody wants to come on it, but I think that's possible,'' he says. "It may die because nobody has the energy to continue it. If you're on it too long, I think you can get burned out, and then you're not doing a very good job. You need to take a break and recharge your batteries and then go back at it again.''

One problem is that no procedure exists for selecting new members. Volunteers were solicited after the first year, but no one took up the offer. The goal for next year is to have new representatives replace two of the current team members. But how they will be selected remains to be determined. Reluctant teachers may have to choose between agreeing to serve on the team or seeing the SHARE project abandoned in favor of hiring a principal.

Not everyone in Minnesota's educational establishment is sold on the idea of schools without principals. Even Richard Mesenburg, the state official who encouraged the Hill City staff to try some new ideas, expresses reservations. "My feelings continue to be very strong that principals are necessary in schools and that schools ought not to look at team management until they have exhausted the other options available to them,'' he says. "I'm concerned that we're making it seem as though anybody [can run a school].''

The state's principals, for their part, are disturbed by some of the more sweeping experiments in teacher decisionmaking, and they are not shy about expressing opposition to the Hill City SHARE-team experiment.

"Teachers are being enticed into a role for which they have no training, for which they have no experience, and for which they're receiving cash,'' says Robert Arnold, executive director of the Minnesota Elementary School Principals' Association. "I think all three of these things affect any legitimate results of the experiment. We're convinced that the public, the teachers, and the school board will soon discover that the principal-leadership approach is still vital to effective schools.''

Phillip Tenney, Arnold's counterpart with the state's organization for secondary school principals, says his group supports site-based management as long as a principal remains in charge of the school. "Someone has to be the person to make a decision,'' he says. "We just don't think [a team of teachers] has the experience or training to do that.''

One Hill City school board member shares some of those concerns. "I do believe that they're trying hard to overcome some of their problems,'' says Vernon Bishop, who was elected last July largely because of his opposition to the SHARE team. "But I'm just not sure that a group of teachers can make the decisions that a principal who has been trained for that kind of work can.''

SHARE-team members say they do not necessarily advocate getting rid of principals. But they have developed some of their own insights about school administrators. Ferraro and Burt say they often return from regional principals' meetings frustrated by the unwillingness of other administrators to share their decisionmaking power with teachers.

"If they would get input from their teachers and use it, their schools would be much better run and much happier,'' Ferraro says. "And the children benefit if you have a happy staff.''

So what lies ahead for Indepen- dent School District 2? The Hill City school board will decide at the end of the school year whether to continue the experiment; that vote, however, is expected to be little more than a formality--Bishop predicts his will be the only "no'' vote on the six-person board. The SHARE team also must receive renewed blessings from the Minnesota Board of Education in 1991, when the state's three-year waiver expires. But the experiment probably won't end because of decisions made by people outside the school. The future depends much more on the team's ability to keep the school running smoothly and to clear the unexpected hurdles that they inevitably will encounter.

"We've had little bumps in the road along the way,'' says Burt. "At the beginning, it seemed like we were taking one step forward and two steps back, but I think now we're taking two steps forward and only one step back.''

Mesenburg says the group should be commended for its efforts to plow some new ground in the often rough terrain of school reform. "Hopefully,'' he adds, "they'll be able to share with all of us some of the things they've learned, and we can start to see what works and what doesn't work.''

Whatever happens, Ferraro says, no one can take away all the knowledge the teachers have accumulated on the job. But she remains optimistic about the SHARE team's prospects and predicts that it's only a matter of time before many other schools and districts emulate the tiny Minnesota town.

"I just think we're pioneers ahead of our time,'' she says. "Within five years, this is going to be commonplace.''

Vol. 01, Issue 06, Page 1-24

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