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School’s Out: How College Grads Are Gaining Control of the Classroom

News & Features | September 18, 2010

There is an inescapable and truly awesome sense of change in the future of our public schools, a transformation catalyzed by the fresh ideas of twenty-somethings. Remember being in school? Whether it was the way we learned in classrooms, the structuring of class size and content, the study time, or the food in the cafeteria, we can all remember feeling like we were a part of a system that was designed by someone who lacked insight into our generation. Before coming to college, we sat in classrooms every day for six hours and thought, ‘there has got to be a better way to do this.

Turns out, maybe there is. Many twenty-somethings feel that their recent emergence from a system with nationally recognized flaws gives them an edge over school administrators who have been running things for years, who may have forgotten what it’s like to be a kid in a classroom. The BRICK (Builiding Responsible Intelligent Creative Kids) Avon Academy in Newark, New Jersey is the first school to be run entirely by Teach for America alums. Its doors opened two weeks ago to its first class of students, most hailing from the South Ward, a low-income area of Trenton.

Dominique Lee is just 25 years old and is the founder, executive director, and operations manager of the BRICK Avon Academy, which welcomes students ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade. Building on his Teach for America experience, Lee found fault with a lot of the policies and practices that plague most American public schools. By implementing a more robust curriculum, longer school days, and many paid training workshops for teachers (about two-thirds of the Academy teachers taught at the former Avon Avenue School), Lee is hoping to institute a much larger sea change towards the way the institution of public school is run.

Lee isn’t alone in his field, either. Closer to home, the Boston Teachers Union School follows a similar model. The school is entirely run by teachers, most of them in their early thirties, who have decided to take the reigns when it comes to the schools where they educate. By placing the burden of administration into the hands of the teachers, the Union School hopes to address the academic needs of its students better than a city politician or politically motivated official far removed from the classroom.

Whatever the age of its creator, the teacher-run school model seems to have a single mission: to make teachers more accountable to their classrooms so that the quality of teaching improves. Union schools have been criticized, though, for their support of the philosophy that teachers need to a large monetary incentive to teach well. Boston Teachers Union School co-leader Berta Rosa Berriz assures, “We’re a union school and it does not get in the way of having an excellent school.”

The concept for a teacher-run school has come to fruition among many nationally publicized discussions on the best ways for teachers to raise academic achievement in classrooms. As the shouts for “teacher accountability” get louder (Washington, D.C. school district fired over 100 teachers this summer based on evaluations and value-added scores), teachers are demanding that with that added accountability should come the ability to shape the environment in which they teach.

With the Boston Teachers Union School in its second year and the BRICK Avon Academy only two weeks open, there isn’t a large amount of quantitative data such as test scores to measure the success of these teacher cooperatives. However, many point to qualitative categories as the first measures of these schools’ success. Waitlists for these and other newly opened teacher-run schools in Denver and St. Paul are already multiple years long and the level of student involvement within the classroom that officials have observed during initial walkthroughs has been incredibly high.

“We want to bring back some of the joy of teaching,’’ said Richard Stutman, the Boston Teachers Union president. “You want people to reach their own professional potential by allowing them to do things differently.’’

The question Lee’s school brings up specifically is this: is our generation ready to teach the generation after? Have we grown or evolved or learned enough to be responsible for an entire population of fresh minds? Though us Gen-X’ers have been loudly criticized for our tendency to remain children well into our late twenties, are we in fact ready to assume an authoritative role in shaping the voice that directly follows us?

Mostly, critics fear that teacher-run schools will run into problems on the administrative end of things, especially schools run by students straight out of college.

“Teachers,” said James H. Lytle, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania who teaches a course on urban school reform to Teach for America teachers, “want the textbooks to be there and the students to come on time.”

So far, Lee and Brick Avon Academy’s twenty-something TFA alums are surpassing expectation. They have already raised $125,000 for teacher training workshops and an after-school program for students.

Though the overall success rate of these schools remains to be seen, BRICK Avon Academy maintains that “like the phoenix our education system must be reborn to meet the needs of future generations.