Teachers in Charge
With support from their Association and their school district, these educators created—and run—their own school.
What would your school be like if you called the shots? “Empowering,” says kindergarten teacher Kim Ursetta, who knows what she’s talking about. She works in the Math & Science Learning Academy (MLSA), a new, union-designed, teacher-led public school within the Denver Public School System.
Among the first of its kind in the United States, the K-2 academy opened this past fall inside the Rishel Middle School building and plans to expand to a K-5 school by adding one grade level per year.
Years in the making, the school began with a simple question. “We asked ourselves, ‘how do you take the very best research and knowledge about what makes a difference for kids and empower accomplished teachers to start a new school?’” says Denver Classroom Teachers Association’s Linda Barker. She and her colleagues believed that greater teacher autonomy would positively impact student learning.
From there, the planners also wanted to increase student interest in math and science, especially among Denver’s Hispanic population.
“We know that ethnic minorities are underrepresented in math and science so we wanted to provide a quality education for our Hispanic students, who comprise 57 percent of Denver’s student population,” says Ursetta. Currently, 60 percent of MSLA’s students are Spanish-speaking and 90 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch.
The planning and approval process for the school took DCTA, Barker, and Lori Nazareno, one of the school’s two head teachers, two years. They took their proposal to the Denver Public Schools’ (DPS) Superintendent and school board, who were receptive to the idea of a different school model. Once DPS funds came through, the teachers sat down and decided how they wanted their school to look, purchasing grade-specific items for each classroom.
Bedecked with brightly colored student projects, the academy’s classrooms reflect the science and technology focus of the school, along with the specific needs of young learners. Kindergartners sit at round tables on sturdy rocking chairs to satisfy their need for regular movement. The stools in the art room adjust for height. Multiple MacBook laptops and iPod Touches are shared by students for learning activities, and microscopes and science stations are set up in all the classrooms.
The school’s unique makeup allows teachers to be flexible and creative. Ursetta and her colleagues meet regularly throughout the week to discuss goals, progress, and plans, and have worked together to build the school’s culture from square one.
“We come together and make all of our decisions by consensus. To be able to come up with an idea and not have to vet it through a hierarchy has been incredible. You can actually look at what your students need and be able to implement that the next day.” says Ursetta.
“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,” says Nazareno. She and the other 11 teachers at the school work under union salary contracts.
Bernadette Lopez, one of three teachers who help students master academic concepts in Spanish, then English, appreciates the school’s teacher-as-leaders approach. “Being respected as a professional has made all the difference in the world.”
In addition to meeting several times a week, the team of teachers breaks into smaller peer-evaluation groups. They observe each other monthly to provide feedback and share best practices. The results help them track their advancement toward the individual performance goals they set for themselves at the beginning of the year.
“Teachers aren’t afraid of accountability, it’s just how you measure success that is really important,” says Nazareno. The team wants to meet or exceed the state’s percentages of students who are proficient or higher, and expects that percentage to increase over time. “We want at least a year’s worth of growth in a year’s worth of time,” says Nazareno.
The team’s benchmarks for success aren’t only based on the students’ performance. “We want all of our students to be able to say, ‘yes, there are at least two or three adults in that school who know me and care about me.’ We want all the parents who want to be involved in the school to have a role and be able to say, ‘yes I feel welcome at that school,’” adds Nazareno.
Former DCTA President Ursetta is proud to be a part of the team, whose members all bring different strengths and backgrounds to the table. “I can’t imagine working anywhere else. To know that we can all lead together and by example has been the most amazing opportunity I’ve ever had in my career,” she says.
MSLA is just one example of union-assisted efforts to transform low-performing schools and significantly raise student achievement. NEA has committed to work side-by-side with communities and policymakers to fight to attract and keep the best educators and necessary resources for the schools of greatest need as part of its Priority Schools Campaign.