Making the Grade: Teacher-powered Schools

Jenerra Williams is teaching her first and second grade class at Mission Hill School about ancestry as part of a broader lesson on immigration.

Williams created her own curriculum for this class. She doesn't rely on one particular textbook or the same lesson plan year after year.

“We say no we are going to create it ourselves,” said Williams on the curriculum.

That's because Mission Hill is a pilot school within the Boston Public School District.

It is staff run, which means a governing body makes decisions about the calendar year, hiring, curriculum, and the budget, all while still having to meet state standards.

Traditionally, only principals make those decisions.

“Almost every decision that we make is made as a group, as opposed to one person saying this is what the budget is going to be, this is what the curriculum is going to be, and sort of handing it down. We all have a say on how that unfolds,” said Williams.

According to the Boston Public School District, 32% of students in the district will attend one of four types of teacher-powered or autonomous schools, like Mission Hill next year.

Autonomous schools have existed within the district for almost two decades, but only recently was a study commissioned to see how well they are working.

The results were issued in a report called the path forward.

“Anecdotally we knew it was working really well,” said Lee McGuire, spokesperson for Boston Public Schools.

It found that autonomies are valuable and they are not in and of themselves necessarily affective.

“So it's not enough to just give them a key and say ok here's an autonomy, have a great time, you have to make sure it's supported really well from a central organization that's structured in a way that supports school success,” said Lee.

While the district works to improve and increase the number of autonomous schools in the city, the same must be done nationwide.

“Centralizing power at the top isn't working in education in America,” said Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.

What first started in Boston may also be a trend taking off nationwide.

Education Evolving, a national policy group, recently released data showing 85% of Americans agree teacher-powered schools are a good idea. And 54% of teachers indicate they are very interested in working in a teacher-led partnership.

But some critics of this education model say autonomy doesn't always equate to higher student test scores, as is the case at Mission Hill.

Williams says success shouldn't be judged by just numbers.

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