National leaders find power of teacher autonomy at MSLA

MSLA roundtable discussion with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, May 9

MSLA roundtable discussion with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, May 9

The Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy is a teacher-led school in west Denver that states as their motto, ‘Everyone in this school is a learner, a teacher and a leader.’ MSLA doesn’t have traditional school administrators like a principal. Instead, all the decisions – from the length of the school day to color of the chairs – rest with the teachers, who openly collaborate with school support staff, parents and students to drive the direction of learning.

The successes and challenges of running such a unique school model have attracted attention in the education community from Denver to Washington, D.C. During a two-day visit to Colorado, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan made a point to stop by MSLA, May 9, for a round-table discussion with faculty on the importance of teachers having leadership roles in their schools.

Sec. Duncan talks with MSLA staff.

Sec. Duncan talks with MSLA staff

“This school is an interesting example of Denver being way, way, way ahead of where the nation needs to be in terms of creating these hybrid roles,” Duncan told the group. “Yesterday I was with a number of teacher-leaders who are now half-time in the class, half-time in mentoring and evaluation. I heard their enthusiasm, their excitement about where this can go… I think this is where the country needs to go and you guys are probably a couple years ahead. I really want to learn from what’s working and what’s not here.”

“What I think is impressive about MSLA is that it lets you hit the trifecta of job satisfaction: autonomy, purpose and growth,” said Pamela Yawn, a bilingual teacher and member of Denver Classroom Teachers Association who was one of several teachers who spoke with Duncan. “It’s not top-down… I can change my practice that day, for that student, for any particular learning. That’s what we’re doing here. We need to know what our students are going through almost minute-by-minute and be able to adjust. My practice has improved 400% since I’ve been here.”

MSLA3

Erika Franco (near right) participates in the roundtable with Sec. Duncan (far left)

“The person who really knows what’s going on in the classroom, who really knows what’s needed for those kids is the teacher. So we are the ones who have the decisions in our hands,” added Erika Franco, bilingual teacher and DCTA member. “This is what we want to do at MSLA, have our teams work so we all have a say, so we all have an opportunity to decide on the future of our school and on the future of our students. What makes us unique is that we are in the classroom, but we are working as leaders as well. That makes a huge impact in education, a revolution in education.”

DCTA member Lynne Lopez-Crowley is one of MSLA’s co-lead teachers. With the power to make decisions, she says the faculty continually looks at practice and what they can do better.

MSLA co-lead teacher Lynne Lopez-Crowley explains school practice to Sec. Duncan, Mayor Hancock.

MSLA co-lead teacher Lynne Lopez-Crowley explains school practice to Sec. Duncan, Mayor Hancock

“Today we are looking at next steps – what is working well right now and what we need to change so we can implement that change right away to the benefit of our students. And I think that’s what makes our school different. The district has helped us take away all those layers so we can implement that change without going through this person, this person and this person, so we can always be on the cutting edge.”

Kim Ursetta, a bilingual kindergarten teacher and DCTA member of 20 years, said an important part of teaching at MSLA is holding each other accountable for results.

“We do hold each other to a higher standard, especially as a teacher-led school, because first of all we have that urgency for our students. Our parents expect that and we expect that of each other. So it really is up to us to not only look at that classroom level, but up in the airplane looking down at how do we move our school forward.”

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet also sat in on the MSLA roundtable with Duncan and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. When he was superintendent of Denver Public Schools, Bennet collaborated with Ursetta, then president of DCTA, to help launch the Academy.

Sen. Bennet lifts the importance of teacher quality in the MSLA discussion

Sen. Bennet lifts the importance of teacher quality in the MSLA discussion

“MSLA is one of those examples, and we have many others across the district, where we’re distributing our leadership, and teachers are able to find rungs on the ladder other than just being a teacher or being an administrator. There are many things in-between they’re now able to do, and I think the craft of teaching, as a result, is getting better,” Bennet observed. “We know it’s good to have a good curriculum, but that’s not what makes the difference. It’s the quality of the teaching that makes the difference. If you’ve got a lousy curriculum and a great teacher, you’re going to be fine. But you’re not going to be fine the other way around.”

Duncan, Bennet and Hancock heard many personal stories with common themes that defined how teacher freedom and empowerment gives MSLA its identity and helps the Academy reach its goals. They learned MSLA has:

  • Engaged students (attendance rate above 95%) who can voice opinions to teachers on what they want to learn;
  • Highly supportive parents who feel welcome in the school and overwhelmingly turn out for school activities;
  • Stronger mentorship practices than teachers experienced in other schools;
  • Emphasis on professional development, with many teachers starting advanced degrees and National Board Certification after arriving at MSLA.

Duncan was particularly interested in how the school arrives at decisions without a principal to make a final call. Tara Thompson, kindergarten and 1st grade teacher and DCTA member, calls the process “super-exciting because we are the ones who are getting to make that decision.” She related how the school decided upon use of the DIBELS literacy test.

Tara Thompson gives insight into MSLA's decision-making process

Tara Thompson gives insight into MSLA’s decision-making process

“There was a lot of disagreement, but man, it was amazing that we were getting to make that decision and I was able to talk to my peers about that and have my voice heard, whereas in other situations, you’re told, ‘You’re doing the DIBELS and find the time to do it.’ We were able to have that discussion, figure out how to do it, and implement it in a way that worked for all of us, not just have it placed on you. It’s very exciting,” Thomson said.

“One of the things I love most about MSLA is the teamwork and that so many of the people have very flexible thinking. It’s the flexible thinking that pushes us ahead,” added Lucinda Bowers, a school social worker and DCTA member with 37 years of education experience. “The strength of our team is in listening to each other, teamwork and collaborating. If we disagree, we talk it out and we keep talking. What comes from that is wonderful and successful.”

The teachers admitted being the only teacher-led school in the district has made it difficult to learn best practices from other schools, and they asked the leaders to encourage the creation of a network of teacher-led schools that could help one another. In doing so, the teachers reasoned more young people could be attracted to the teaching profession if they saw the potential to have greater professional freedom and autonomy in such a school.

Jose Martin tells the story of this journey from Spain to teach in Denver

Jose Martin tells the story of this journey from Spain to teach in Denver

Jose Martin, first grade teacher and DCTA member, is a good example of how schools like MSLA can attract and develop younger teachers. He came to Denver from Spain three years ago to start his teaching career. “To be perfectly honest, I came just to teach in the sense of, ‘Give me the curriculum, the books.’ But then I found here they are asking you to step up. That first year I tried to hide because I am a shy person.”

Martin soon found he wanted to step up to lead the way in preparing students and giving them the skills to succeed. “For me, it’s very important to be in MSLA, come out of my shell and to be a leader, so I’m very grateful for the opportunity.”

For veteran teachers, MSLA has challenged them to rethink their role in the school.

“Coming here woke up my eyes to see that there is really a leader in me,” said DCTA member Belinda Villalobos, a third-grade teacher. “We know how to motivate students and there is a passion among all of us to do – not having anyone tell us what to do… We want to be able to show everyone that we shine as teachers and we want our students to shine. That’s our passion.”

“I feel like my skills have really taken root here because I’ve been given the opportunity to lead my peers and to collaborate with my peers,” Thompson added. “I have the freedom in my classroom to do what’s best for my kids who I see every day, all day. The first graders that I have – I’ve had them for two years now – and they are shining. I’m so proud of them.”

Thompson is a 14-year veteran teacher, while Villalobos has taught in the classroom for nearly 30 years. Duncan, who spoke to the national need to support great teachers and ‘keep them, not burn them out,’ was mostly surrounded by experienced teachers during the discussion. The high retention rate of teachers at MSLA was pointed out to the Secretary as proof the teacher-led school model is working for them, the students and the community.

MSLA faculty and guests gather for a picture after the roundtable discussion

MSLA faculty and guests gather for a picture after the roundtable discussion

“Have you heard anybody here say they’re burned out? No, because when you have a voice in something, you have buy-in and you don’t burn out as easily,” Lopez-Crowley said. “When we get new teachers in, they’re scared or hesitant to make a decision. They’re not used to doing it, not used to having their voice heard. After they’ve been here a couple of months, you have a totally different person.”

“This is obviously a huge amount of work, a huge amount of courage,” Duncan said at the end of the discussion. “I’ll try and find ways for other school districts in other cities to look at what is going on here to increase public confidence in public education. There’s some pretty important lessons that others could learn from what you guys are doing collectively. So thank you for your leadership and thank you for your commitment.”

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One Response

  1. […] colleagues — with teachers working collaboratively to make the school successful. Today, the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA) in Denver is celebrating its fifth anniversary, with full enrollment and highly satisfied […]

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