Peer Review Begins at Teacher-Led School
Tuesday, December 15, 2009 -- During a recent school day in Denver, first-grade teacher Julie Variot monitored her students’ reading and pronunciation while two of her colleagues walked around the room, observing, jotting notes on the school’s custom evaluation form. After class, those colleagues -- librarian Lynne Lopez-Crowley and kindergarten teacher Jennifer Diaz -- huddled on the students’ small chairs with Variot to discuss their observations.
Such peer evaluations are the newest step in an innovative program taking place in the city. Denver's Math & Science Leadership Academy is a teacher-led school that represents the cooperation between teachers, Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. At the innovative facility, teachers observe each other monthly in order to provide feedback and share best practices.
Before the evaluation sessions, teachers set their own goals, said Variot, adding that on this day one of her goals was to use technology and "to keep moving and improving myself, as well for student learning."
Bernadette Lopez, one of three teachers at the academy who helps students master academic concepts in Spanish, then English, said the school's approach is empowering. “Being respected as a professional has made all the difference in the world."
Teacher evaluations have existed for decades as a means to monitor teacher competence, progress, and practice. Yet school districts nationwide continue to struggle with the balance meaningful evaluation with demanding administrator workloads.
“Evaluation is meant to be used as a tool for improving instruction and instead we’ve used it as a final exam,” said Kim Ursetta, former president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and currently a teacher at the school. By contrast, "in a teacher-led school, we learn from each other and hold each other accountable,” said teacher Lori Nazareno.
The school’s 12 teachers – all Association members – are led by Nazareno and Lopez-Crowley. The group collaborates on all aspects of the school’s operation. For peer review, they act in three-person teams to evaluate members monthly through observation. The two evaluators then get together with the teacher being reviewed to go over their findings, give positive feedback, and discuss what areas may need improvement.
In addition to peer-review, the academy's teachers work together to develop curriculum and professional development plans. “We started with a strong belief system that it isn’t district contracts or district curriculum that impedes student learning, said Association teaching and learning specialist Linda Barker. "We want to show that it’s the instruction and culture of school that makes a difference." She worked closely with Nazareno and a consultant to develop the school plan and navigate through red tape.
It took two years, from planning to district approval, to get the school opened in September 2009. The K-2 school will add a grade level per year until it offers fifth-grade classes. After compiling a portfolio of 10 accomplished teachers, the school's 12 teachers began planning every detail of the school, down to the furniture and wall decorations. It meets a crucial need in the community. Out of approximately 135 students, 60 percent are primarily Spanish-speaking students and 90 percent are eligible for free and reduced lunch.
“We started with a blank slate and an empty area and asked ourselves, ‘How do you take the very best research and knowledge about what makes a difference for kids and empower accomplished teachers and start a new school?’” said Barker.
Once on board, Denver Public Schools provided funding specifically for the outfitting of the school, including instructional tools like MacBook laptops that are kept in the classrooms and shared by students.
Nazareno says the response from teachers has been exciting. She received nearly 500 applications for the school’s initial positions, and is already getting applications for the three teaching positions that will open next year when the academy adds third grade.
“This school is a testament to the joint effort of the district and the local association, who put the resources into giving teachers the opportunity to really show what we can do when we have an authentic voice in how a school is designed and run,” said Nazareno.
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