LOS ANGELES — Four years ago, Francis Parkman Middle School was spiraling downward with plummeting enrollment, abysmal test scores and notoriety for unruliness. Then teachers stepped out of the classroom and took charge of the school.
Today, the rechristened Woodland Hills Academy, named for the school's suburban location north of Los Angeles, is run by a teacher-controlled committee where the principal carries the same weight as a teacher and the district has minimal say in operations.
Test scores are up 18 percent and enrollment has spiked more than 30 percent. The model works, teachers say, because everyone from the principal to the janitor is vested in the outcome. "Everybody has a stake," said teacher Bruce Newborn. "We all suffer and we all win."
Fed up with being blamed for failing students, classroom teachers from Boston to Los Angeles are taking over their schools in a small but growing trend in the education reform movement.
Proponents say teachers can turn floundering schools into flourishing ones if allowed the freedom to innovate to meet the needs of their students. That means allowing teachers to hire who they want, spend funds as they see fit, and customize everything from curriculum to calendar – as long as they meet state and federal mandates.
"The current system constrains teachers quite significantly – teachers are one stop on the assembly line," said Tim McDonald, associate at Education Evolving, an education-reform nonprofit. "It's the system that's causing the failure, not the teachers."
But the jury is still out on whether teacher-leaders really turn around troubled schools.
Student achievement has been mixed, according to a recent study by Claremont Graduate University education professor Charles Kerchner. "No one has yet reached a definitive answer to how well teacher-run schools perform," Kerchner stated.
How smoothly teachers can run a school is also a question mark. Leadership by consensus often leads to slower decision-making, especially with people inexperienced in the substantial administrative work operating a school entails.
"I'm skeptical it's going to be a solution of scale," said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy research institute. "With great teachers and a strong model, you can pull it off, but it's really hard."
Independent charter schools run by teacher groups have been around for several decades, but a new teacher-led model is emerging on a wider scale that gives teachers more power and schools more autonomy. Some, like Woodland Hills, retain principals but reduce their authority; some eschew principals altogether.
This hybrid model has found a powerful torchbearer – teachers unions, which have been eager to find a way to push back against largely non-unionized charters and reformers who point the finger at unions as protectors of the status quo.
The American Federation of Teachers, and unions in Boston, Denver, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Los Angeles are throwing their muscle behind teacher-led models.
The stakes are highest in Los Angeles Unified, the nation's second largest school district which has around 170 charter schools – the most of any district in the country. The district is turning over 250 new and low-performing schools to the organization that submits the best educational plan, and union United Teachers Los Angeles is anxious to stop charters from gaining more ground.
"We've always said we wanted to be part of a collaborative reform process," said Joel Jordan, UTLA special projects director. "But how do we go to the mat against charter schools?"
Enter Woodland Hills Academy.
Despite its location in a leafy suburb, the school is like many in Los Angeles. It draws a broad spectrum of students – 40 percent receive free or reduced-price lunches. Half the student body is Hispanic, the other half speaks 26 languages ranging from Armenian to Farsi.
Teachers said the former Parkman suffered under an apathetic administration. Paint was peeling and locker rooms lacked hot water. Standardized test scores hovered in the 600s – 800 is the state's acceptable mark. The music program got canceled. Local elementary schools didn't bother inviting Parkman to fifth-grade open houses.
After two charter schools opened nearby, enrollment plunged from 1,250 to 950 in two years and the school's future seemed to be in flux. A neighboring hospital eyed it as a parking lot.
When three teachers were to be laid off due to dropping enrollment, four colleagues filed an application to turn Parkman into a teacher-led charter. Contentious bargaining with the district ensued. "They called us renegades, out of control," recalled teacher Colleen Schwab.
In order to keep the school formally part of the district, officials allowed a 16-member leadership council, comprising eight elected teachers, the principal, and representatives of non-teaching staff and parents, to autonomously run the school.
The council tackled the building and grounds with fresh landscaping, fencing, and paint. It designed a schedule with 95-minute periods, rotating them so teachers see students at different times of the day. The curriculum now includes art, music, and electives such as cooking, photography and journalism, plus field trips.
Teachers decide their own professional development track and set the school's goals for test scores and English as a second language placement. Parents and students are given satisfaction surveys.
Change was rough initially. Although the union backed the team, teachers got some backlash because they put in many hours on their own time.
Administrators and a few teachers resisted collaborating with the council and later left – the council hired replacements in line with their mission. Complaints were lodged with the district, and later dismissed, alleging the maverick teachers were pilfering money from student fundraisers. "It was really ugly," Schwab said.
Today, the school's test score of 783 is edging toward the state target. After teachers promoted the school at elementary schools, enrollment has mushroomed to 1,309.
Parent involvement is up. A new booster club last year raised $75,000.
Principal Ed Hayek said his job is easier with minimal district bureaucracy and a committee to bounce ideas around. "
Not all teacher-led schools have been so successful.
Of 13 teacher-led schools in Minnesota, seven achieved state adequate yearly progress goals, six did not, according to the Claremont Graduate University study.
In Milwaukee, teacher-led schools scored a couple points below the city district average in reading proficiency scores and 12 points lower in math.
The absence of a principal to handle administrative tasks and lack of buy-in from all staffers and the district have been stumbling blocks in some places.
Kim Farris-Berg, a public policy expert researching teacher-led schools, said most schools resolve those issues by hiring administrators and carefully selecting hirees, but observers say it underscores the fact that schools really need an executive.
"Someone has to be the lead dog," said Dan Domenich, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.
Still, teacher-led schools are gaining momentum. In Los Angeles, union-backed teacher groups beat charters to win control of 30 out of 37 schools in the district's first "public school choice" round last year. Most follow or build on the Woodland Hills blueprint.
Teachers said leading their schools allows them to feel like professionals. "We don't have teachers leaving," said Woodland Hills teacher Paul Cane. "When you have a say in what you do, everyone wants to be a part of it."