Teachers Take Control of a Detroit School

The Palmer Park Preparatory Academy
Just read the Education Week article, “Teacher-Led School Innovates With Student Regrouping”, about some innovative governance and methodological changes happening in a Detroit public school. Detroit, if you are not aware has had a crumbling public school system, even before the current recession has put extra pressure on state budgets and as a result, school spending. What I like about what’s happening at Palmer Park Preparatory Academy is that former worker-bees from the conventional educational hierarchy are demonstrating agency beyond what is expected of people at the bottom of the pecking order. As my mom always said, “The teachers should run the schools”, and that is what’s starting to happening here. The only missing ingredient IMO… bringing the students into that school administrative and governance processes.

At Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, teachers are gradually assuming administrative duties to become the city’s first teacher-led school. An extended day, part of the district’s reform policy, gives the staff time every afternoon to compare teaching strategies. And finally, a new, pilot schedule for 7th and 8th graders… [an] attempt to get concrete about the much-touted but often vague concept of “differentiated instruction” for students, especially for those who have struggled to grasp key concepts and risk falling further behind.

Teacher-led schools are a time-honored practice, particularly in some alternative private schools like Waldorf, and in the iconic one-room school house of the American frontier. But apparently they are one of the current “flavors of the month”, gaining fresh attention in the past year, with schools in California, Colorado, Minnesota, and New York being covered in the media.

As a parent, if I had had this option for my kids for middle school, I certainly would have taken a closer look. Regardless, I applaud them in two areas. First, in moving forward in our societal transformation from hierarchy to a circle of equals. Second in acknowledging (at least to a degree) that each human being learns at their own pace.

Prior to moving them to public schools, we had enrolled our two kids, Eric and Emma (now young adults), in a small private school for pre-K and through the early elementary grades. The school was staffed by the owner Brenda, an administrative person, and maybe a half-dozen teachers. Eric and Emma’s mom and I, as customers, had a lot of access to Brenda and our kids’ teachers, and they were open to listen to our thoughts on our kids, and were open to our suggestions on what would make the best learning environment for Eric and Emma.

Having a casual conversation to trade thoughts with Brenda and/or their teacher for a few minutes most days when I came to pick our kids up, I was totally spoiled by having access to the “education decision-makers” in my kids’ school experience. We discussed the things Eric and Emma were interested and not interested in, and how pragmatically to customize the school learning environment and methodology to best meet those needs. We would even bring Eric or Emma into those short informal discussions at times. Our kids, especially the more extroverted Eric, generally had their own thoughtful opinions on their school experience.

When we transitioned our kids to public school during the older elementary years, we were now interacting with the adult school staff within a massive district and state hierarchy. The school’s teachers and principal were for the most part more highly trained and skilled than Brenda and her staff, but it quickly became clear that the dynamic was completely different. Not only was the school much bigger than the little school they had previously attended, but the teachers and even the principal were not the “education decision-makers” we were used to dealing with (and had taken for granted).

First of all, access to the teachers and the principal was much more limited, and often (though not always) needed to be formally scheduled.

Some of our kids’ teachers were interested in discussing with us Eric and Emma’s personalities and proclivities, while others had a formula for teaching that they did not vary from and it was essentially “their way or the highway”, and our kids just had to go with the program.

But what was clear in dealing with all the teachers (and even the principal) on most matters of policy, classroom structure or teaching methodology was that they were just worker-bees following marching orders from higher up the food chain. Most of our kids’ teachers could not answer a question on their teaching methodology other than to say they had a required curriculum to teach.

As our son Eric in particular became more disenchanted with his school experience and began challenging his teachers when he felt the curriculum was boring or pointless, our lack of access to or a real relationship with most of his teachers and his counselor made it difficult to try and find solutions that worked for all parties. But even when we did get that access and develop relationships, many promising potential solutions were beyond the latitude of the teachers, counselor or principal to implement. Certainly customizing or differentiating Eric’s curriculum or learning environment was beyond the pale of these overtaxed, over-regulated and under-empowered adult school staff.

So getting back to the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, though they still operate within a school district and state hierarchy, and have their marching orders, the school staff are at some level becoming “education decision-makers”, empowered to a degree to create an effective learning environment. For the kids attending the school and their parents, I have to think that this transition from hierarchical to more egalitarian school governance is a real plus.

When you are empowered and have real agency, you are looking for solutions and not on who to blame up the food chain. While many teachers I know blame administration or state mandates and regulations for not being able to optimize their school learning environment, the Palmer Park teachers took matters into their own hands…

The genesis of the changes occurred last summer, after a group of teachers at Palmer Park approached the district with the proposal to convert to a teacher-led arrangement, in which the school’s teachers take on the budgeting and management duties generally carried out by an administrator.

To make this work the teachers set up collaborative planning time at the end of every school day which lengthens their work day. But it was a trade-off worth having the added authority to customize their educational environment on even a weekly basis to better meet individual student needs. So I presume since the Palmer Park lead teachers are being trained in school administration, they will run their school without a principal, without a “boss” as it were. According to one of the lead teachers…

“It’s so much easier to move the kids and challenge them and address them when they need more attention.”

And in regards to the Palmer Park teachers’ effort to take steps to tailor the learning environment to the learner, I find it interesting that though the concept of “differentiated instruction” has been given lip-service in discussions of educational methodology for years, this fledgling effort to really implement it is framed as being highly unorthodox…

The concept appears to be relatively new to education as a whole. Only a handful of other schools, all in New York, have used data to create personalized student schedules, and none of them is currently teacher-led…

Interesting that, because there seems to be such synergy between teachers as decision-makers and looking at students as empowered ind

Discussions among those teachers homed in on how to boost attendance, keep students more engaged in their work, and minimize their frustration when they were struggling with lessons, said Ann K. Crowley, one of the lead teachers who will assume most administrative duties in the school… In consultation with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt officials, the teachers arrived at the idea of personalized schedules for all the students, varying on whether they need more-intensive instruction on basic concepts or are ready for more in-depth instruction. Using a data-analysis tool, the publishing group culled information from state, local, and classroom tests. Then the school placed students in one of three classrooms each in math and English/language arts with peers at the same level of performance.

Empowering youth to be “decision-makers” in their own lives is still the last mostly unexplored frontier of our society’s multi-century transition from hierarchical to egalitarian institutions. Most adults still think that children are… well… “children”, and (given the often pejorative use of that word) are generally considered incompetent to play a significant role in managing even their own lives.

But think outside that adultist box for a moment. Imagine what a learning experience it would be for say a middle-school student who was interested to participate in the administrative training that the Palmer Park teachers are getting, and then play a role in actually making the school day work. Does that sound ridiculous or transformative?

As school budget cuts continue and remaining budget is focused on maintaining teachers in the classrooms, could empowering students, side by side newly empowered teachers become the new flavor of the month?

In my dreams at least!

3 replies on “Teachers Take Control of a Detroit School”

  1. I was reading throught some of the posts and i identify them to be awfully interesting. sorry my english is not exaclty the very best. would there be anyway to transalte this into my patois, spanish. it would in reality usurp me a lot. since i could compare the english lingo to the spanish language.

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