The Green School HS in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, received a $100,000 grant for technology and had to decide how to use the money.
In the space of two weeks, the school’s teacher-led technology committee polled staff, analyzed the data and came up with a plan. Now there’s a Promethean board, a laptop cart with 25 laptops and a printer in each classroom, plus a computer for each teacher.
“Teachers know what they need,” said Chapter Leader James Van Nort. “Using shared leadership and a good decision-making protocol, we came to a shared decision on a major technology grant.”
Green School HS is one of the 140 schools citywide in the Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence (PROSE) program that gives schools the flexibility to rethink old rules and try out new ideas, including how decisions get made.
Each school applying to become a PROSE school must have a track record of collaboration among administration and faculty. But last spring, a number of PROSE schools went a step further by launching a shared-leadership initiative.
After attending a weekend retreat focused on shared leadership, staff went back to their schools and embarked on a round of intensive planning — creating protocols, setting goals and deciding how different kinds of school-based decisions would be made and by whom. Ultimately, the power base at these schools is moving out of the principal’s office and into the school at large.
With shared leadership, the school’s success becomes a shared responsibility, a true collaboration among all the shareholders — what Van Nort describes as a “horizontal school.”
At the heart of shared-leadership governance are the school’s instructional teams and schoolwide committees that focus on a broad range of issues such as hiring and school climate. A steering committee coordinates communication and the decision-making process. And, while many New York City public schools use teams and committees to get work done, the shared leadership structure ensures that faculty members participate fully in the school’s decision-making and the implementation of what is decided.
At Riverdale Avenue Community School, in Brownsville, Brooklyn, every staff member serves on an instructional team and/or schoolwide committee of his or her choice, which “gives the whole staff voice to make sure the school runs in the best interests of our children,” says Chapter Leader Tawana Vasquez.
The teams and committees have vastly improved coordination and communication at the school. With phone calls and home visits, the school’s CARE committee, which engages the rest of the school in its work, reduced absences by almost 10 percent over the last school year. Now the committee is focusing on lateness. And while ELA scores are inching up, the appropriate instructional team has applied a laser focus on why students’ extended responses are not as strong as their short responses.
Principal Meghan Dunn says teacher empowerment enhances “the capacity to do things” and is the surest way to stem staff turnover.
“You can’t move forward unless there’s space to grow and change,” she said.
Sharing the same building with the Riverdale Avenue Community School, Riverdale Avenue MS is in the early stages of implementing its shared leadership initiative. Special education teacher Erin Bannon explained that the school rethought its decision-making and communication processes “because no one knew what was going on, who to go to” or how to support children with particular issues.
With teams and committees in place, Chapter Leader Adeola Amory-Spencer explained, “We’re building out to become a more shared and empowered environment.”
The changes are already paying dividends, the staff says. Worried that all the new informational emails she was sending out might be annoying her colleagues, Rebecca Campbell, a member of the math instructional team, said she has instead been “getting thank-yous for the information.”
“Education needs smart people, and smart people have to feel challenged, not stagnant,” said Kiersten Ward, the Riverdale Avenue MS principal. “More and more, I see leadership potential actualized.”
Van Nort said the Green School became a PROSE school “not only because we wanted more teacher voice, but we wanted to have our voice formalized and based on consensus.” Unlike school-based options, a contractual provision that requires an annual vote to maintain changes, the PROSE program provides the stability of a five-year term so teacher-led initiatives cannot be unilaterally revoked with the arrival of a new principal.
“It’s amazing what can be achieved when administrators have the confidence to share decision-making with their staff,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “We hope more schools will go down the path that these PROSE schools are forging.”