Gretchen Sage-Martinson, Carrie Bakken, & Nora Whalen created a project-based, teacher-powered high school.
School: Avalon School
District: Avalon District in St. Paul
Source: Educators 4 Excellence
We work at the charter public school, Avalon. Avalon is unique in that it has been a teacher-led site since the day our doors opened in 2001. The school was originally founded by a group of parents who were looking to create an alternative to the traditional high school. About halfway through the start-up process, the school received an EdVisions replication grant from the U.S. Department of Education to create a school that was both project-based and teacher-led. The teacher-led component was a large incentive for many teachers who were thinking of working at Avalon as it was seen as a way to create a more professional environment for teachers.
Avalon has always functioned as a teacher-powered school. Right from the start, everyone worked with students while, at the same time, taking on administrative tasks. There was no one but the teachers, so we did everything- from developing curriculum, to negotiating for space, to devising the budget, to recruiting students, and absolutely everything else in between. The goal was to run the school as a cooperative, which has never been simple but always rewarding. Over time, we have streamlined our decision-making, which was necessary since every decision was made through consensus of the whole team.
Our teacher leadership model has led to the development of an extremely stable, satisfied, and happy team at a very successful school. With our model, Avalon School easily retains teachers. For example, over the course of the past 7 years we have had between a 95-100% teacher retention rate. With high teacher retention, we are able to build relationships with each other, our students, and their families. Because we are not constantly hiring and mentoring new staff, we can also continue to improve our learning program year to year. This stability allows us to build on our strengths and let go of practices that are not working.
There is also strong evidence that Avalon’s framework for governance helps students acquire positive learning skills and attitudes. In 2012-2013, 99% of students “agree or strongly agree” that Avalon School is a positive learning environment and 99% of students surveyed said that they felt safe at Avalon. Avalon students also do well on traditional measures of success. For example, Avalon has a higher percentage of students who are proficient on math and reading state tests than the St. Paul Public Schools. This data is consistent with other teacher-powered schools around the country. It is important to note that many students come to Avalon with one or more of the following: persistent truancy, significant deficits in credit, substance abuse issues, or homelessness. Over ½ of our students have a diagnosed disability. As a teacher cooperative, we have built a small, but sturdy school with a solid reputation both in our community, around the nation, and even throughout the world.