School Spotlight: Avalon is teacher-powered

This is the fourth and final part in a series about Avalon School, a model charter school in St. Paul. (Click here to read the introductory post, here to read about student projects, and here to read about Avalon’s schedule.)

A teacher-powered school is one that is run by the teachers.  At Avalon School, there are no administrators. One teacher has administrative credentials, though they aren’t required to have anyone with an administrative license at a charter school. Instead, several teachers take some time during the day to fulfill the administrative duties. All decisions, however, are made collectively by the staff. 

Tim Quealy is a high school teacher who also has some administrative duties at Avalon. “The initial draw for me to Avalon was partly that it’s project-based but mostly that it’s teacher-led.” He was intrigued by the amount of teacher voice in decision making and direct access to have an administrative role. 

A teacher-powered school can have administrators – if the teachers decide they want them. And in some cases, they decide they want a single leader. That might be a principal or it might be a lead teacher. In other cases, they choose a small group of teacher-leaders or a committee of teacher-leaders. The teachers as a whole decide who the leaders are and the leaders essentially report to the teachers. 

While this does equate to more meetings for everybody, it also means teachers know what’s going on and what goes into every decision. Teachers, parents and community members sit on the nine-person Avalon Board, but teachers hold a majority. Everyone has a say in all decisions, including those regarding the school’s financial situation. 

“We want our school to be student-centered and to do that you need decision makers as close to them as possible,” said Tim. “We need consensus on everything – from pay increases to a small schedule change next Tuesday,” he added. And even though there are more meetings and all teachers are involved in all decisions, Tim pointed out Avalon has a 97% retention rate of teachers. “I know in other places teachers feel isolated or are told to do things but they aren’t sure why. It’s because they are so far removed from the decision making.” 

Anna Wesley, a middle school teacher at Avalon, said one of the benefits of being at a teacher-powered school is that she can keep her focus on the students. It’s not a top-down approach, so she has much more flexibility in making changes she feels are needed for her students. “I have the autonomy to most appropriately teach the students that show up in my classroom and all the choice and voice in my curriculum.” She also commented on the fabulous staff. “We are all like-minded in that we value innovation and collaboration,” she said.  

Because teachers ultimately decide everything, Anna also said there is much more ownership. It allows for more innovation, but if you want to make something happen, you need to make it happen and, Anna said the hardest part is that there just isn’t enough time to do it all. Yet doing new things is easier than in other places. “There’s no back door bureaucracy, no red tape. Just engage with the staff and make a decision. We have processes and policies, but less red tape to wade through,” she said. 

The ownership and the decision-making power even trickles down to the students. “Kids know teachers have power here,” Tim said. “They know they are one step away,” rather than teacher to principal to superintendent and maybe school board – and just not knowing who is making any decisions. That translates into students feeling much more empowered over their experience and their learning because they see their own ideas or their peers’ ideas implemented by the school. 

A model for others 

Avalon has found success and that’s partly due to the fact that they’ve been at it for almost 20 years and have worked through some rough patches. Now that they have project-based learning and their schedule working, they have become a model for others. 

“We have hundreds of visitors every year,” Tim said. They include teachers and administrators from traditional public schools, charter schools, and private schools. Avalon welcomes visitors and wants to share their model that works so well for their students. “We are small and a charter school and teacher-powered so we get to try things,” Tim said. Hopefully, he said, some who visit “can take some ideas and push it into a traditional school.” 

More about teacher-powered schools 

According to teacherpowered.org, there are more than 120 public teacher-powered schools in the U.S. Avalon is a charter school, but some teacher-powered schools are still part of a district, so they have signed agreements with the district administration, union, and state regarding how they will function. There are more teacher-powered schools in some areas than others, which has resulted in the development of regional networks, including those in Los Angeles, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Wisconsin. There is also a national network so anyone can connect and network with others across the country. 

For more information about Avalon School, visit their website. For more information on teacher-powered schools, visit teacher-powered.org

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