This is the first in a four-part series about Avalon School, a model charter school in St. Paul. As many contemplate the future of public K12 schools in the U.S., they look to schools like Avalon that are already doing something different.
My best days are the ones I spend in schools. Listening to and watching teachers and students as they work is so insightful! Back in December of 2018, I had such a day when I visited Avalon School in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Avalon is accustomed to being in the spotlight. Since Avalon opened in 2001 as a charter school, the school has received numerous state and national awards. What makes it different? It’s a teacher-powered school – which means there aren’t any administrators. It’s completely managed by the teachers. Additionally, its focus is on project-based learning. I wanted to see what all of that looked like.
There are a lot of interesting things happening at Avalon. So many, in fact, that I’ve decided to dedicate multiple posts to what I saw there. As the first in the series, this post introduces you to Avalon School. Later I will explore some of the things that stood out to me including Avalon’s model for independent projects, their schedule and what being a teacher-powered school means.
Avalon is a small school; there are roughly 250 students in grades 6-12. So class sizes are small, too. The first class I visited was an advisory class. It had two teachers, Nora Whalen and Tim Quealy, and 12 students present that day. There are 22 students enrolled in this advisory, but with the flexible schedule, there were 12 to start on that particular day. The others were doing one of a variety of things, from taking a class at an area college to meeting with another staff member somewhere in the building. Also, having two teachers is a rarity – both Nora and Tim also take on administrative responsibilities so sharing the advisory frees up some time for those tasks.
Like all advisories at Avalon, this was a mixed-grade group, with students in grades 9-12. The students stay with the same advisor all four years. The advisor oversees the independent projects for all students in their advisory. And, since each project has multiple advisors overseeing it, teachers are also asked to be advisors on other students’ projects – usually related to their content area.
The small size and welcoming culture translate to a level of comfort and trust that was evident. And that is intentional. This culture was built and is supported through the advisory model. “The advisory stays the same all four years” of high school, Tim said. “If there is a discipline issue or conflict, the teacher deals with it. The teacher knows this group of students really well.”
The day I visited, Nora and Tim’s advisory started with a circle discussion about academic mindsets. Since students at Avalon must be independently motivated to get their projects done, and since this doesn’t come naturally to most students, the mindsets question was important. Today’s question was about the challenges students face in getting their work done and working hard.
One student immediately grabbed the stuffed animal that functioned as the talking stick. Their response was somewhat generic talking about distractions. The second student who spoke was already solutions-based, suggesting the school provide more quiet rooms. The third student turned more introspective and things shifted. The other students listened intently, respectfully.
“The students are together those four years too and they know each other really well,” Tim said later. “They have ownership. They buy in. They know that if they have a problem, they can come up with solutions and we can make something happen.”
The group was clearly comfortable with each other. There was a lot of trust in the room as the classmates listened and then waved their hands to talk, often to agree or suggest solutions. Even as new students arrived mid-discussion, the conversation wasn’t derailed and as the short advisory period ended, I could hear a few students continue to offer support to their classmates who shared something they were struggling with.
There are clear benefits to having such a small learning community. You get to know everybody, and with the welcoming environment Avalon has created, you feel safe. Even I, an outside visitor who was there for a day, felt very welcomed. Students and staff who had never met me before greeted me warmly all day long. As I popped in and out of classes, students made room for me at their tables and were willing and sometimes eager to talk to me about the class or what they were working on. As I said, Avalon sees lots of visitors every year, but as opposed to schools where visitors are invisible, Avalon’s culture of welcoming people to their learning community felt different and – like we were all part of something special.
After Nora and Tim’s advisory class, I met with Anna Wesley, who teaches Language Arts to grades 6, 7 and 8. The middle school at Avalon is even smaller – with an average of 23 total in each of the sixth, seventh and eighth grades – and Anna loops with them for the three years. By the time students are in eighth grade, they know their classmates and teachers quite well.
In middle school, students also stay with the same advisory for all three years. Anna, like Tim, spoke about the advisory as instrumental in creating the culture they have. “Because we meet every day, we can build a strong community,” she said. There’s not a strict adherence to any sort of plan for advisory, either. “Most do some variation of a Morning Meeting, but it’s very loose,” she said. “But we all have the same priority and that is to build a strong connection with each student. Each teacher does that a little differently.” Anna also reminded me that because Avalon is a charter school, most students are there because something wasn’t working in the school they were in before. “Maybe it was academic, but maybe it was social. We talk about what they need and want in a school so they don’t have the same bad experience. They know their voice is heard because they see the change or they learn how they can make the change through Student Congress.”
In some ways, Avalon is like many other schools. When ninth grade comes around, most students stay with Avalon, but some choose to move to a more traditional high school and, as with any school, there are students enrolling every year. Even with “normal” fluctuations in the student body, the welcoming environment remains.
New students are paired up with a student mentor from day one. They learn the ins and outs of the school, including the rules which students have a hand in writing and revising through Student Congress. “We let kids leave campus for lunch,” Tim said. “The students determined the criteria for who can leave – what their grades need to be, are they hitting their deadlines. A few years ago they didn’t like the dress code so they proposed changes. They know they have authentic voice.”
Additionally, Avalon uses restorative justice practices and peer-run mediations. Students are trained in both and then become the first line in resolving potential conflict before it even becomes an issue. And if it does become an issue, students are involved in all steps of resolving the conflict, too.
One student, a senior, told me about her journey through three schools and a hospital stay before she chose Avalon. She said the other schools didn’t work for her. But at Avalon, she was happy to choose her projects, determine her schedule and find success. She also likes that the teachers go by their first names at Avalon. It’s a good reminder that, “they are here to help us,” she said.
What sets Avalon apart from other schools is its focus on independent projects. Check back for part two in this four-part series – what it means to be project-based at Avalon.