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Portland's teacher-led school

Howard C. Reiche Community School

The Reiche School in Portland is different in a very special way. It is a community center in the heart of the city's urban West End where 15 languages are spoken and 22 countries are represented.

Of their 346 elementary grade students, 52% are English as a Second Language learners, 70% receive free or reduced lunch, and the lunch program runs all summer. Despite the challenges, all students are mainstreamed, the academic are strong, student test scores are good, and parental involvement is exceptional.

An enrichment program partners with Maine Audubon Society, the Portland Symphony Orchestra, Portland Ovations, the Waynflete School, Learning Works, and the Portland Recreation Department.

Parents regularly volunteer, coach teams, tend gardens and raise funds for yoga, swimming, and dance programs that every student can enjoy.

Yet, what really makes Reiche unique is that it is one of only a handful of teacher-led schools in the country. At Reiche every teacher is a leader, participating in and being responsible for decisions.

The Portland Education Association (PEA) was instrumental in the school's transformation from a traditional hierarchy to a teacher-led system, replacing the standard principal model with an organic management system that involves all staff members.

PEA president Kathleen Casasa says the shift was carefully made based upon research and study with the support of Superintendent Jim Morse and the blessing of the school board. After a year of exploration it is now fully operational and highly successful.

The seed of the idea for a teacher-led school was planted at the end of the 2009-10 school year when Principal Marcia Gendron, a collaborative leader who had involved teachers in decision-making, was transferred to the East End Community School.

Teachers thrived under Gendron's system and they began discussing options for keeping Reiche's collaborative vision alive. With the help of PEA, teachers approached Superintendent Morse who agreed to look into a teacher-led approach.
The entire staff participated in a year of exploration during early release meetings, studying and making plans.

With assistance from the National Education Association and the Teacher Union Reform Network, they visited the Boston Teachers Union School and Denver's Math and Science Leadership Academy to learn from their experiences.

After a transition year, the teacher-led school was initiated for 2011-12.

Core Principles adopted by staff guide four committees that handle the major issues and report findings to teacher meetings for review and disposition. Every teacher serves on a committee and a number of support professionals join them to debate and refine their recommendations.

Staff members spend considerable time collaborating and that enables them to arrive at a common understanding of the school's direction and policies. Major issues are resolved by consensus or, on thorny issues, by secret ballot.

Facilitating the dialogue and dealing with the administrative tasks are two Lead Teachers, Chris Keegan and Kevin Brewster, who are half-time classroom teachers. Keegan and Brewster are the interface between parents and the school and between the school and the Portland School Department.

The committees, which include parents, oversee professional development, instructional leadership, external communications and enrichment, and internal communications and climate. A Leadership Team comprised of committee chairs, Lead Teachers, a parent, and a central office representative is the clearing house for information and policies.

Brewster says the schedule is structured to let grade level teachers meet regularly and plan their programs. "We are always talking about our kids," he says. Keegan concurs, "With our diverse student population, any number of people are working with a student and we use the time to develop individualized programs."

Reiche's success, points out Casasa, is based on widely-accepted Core Principles, strong commitment by staff, union leadership, time to collaborate, meaningful professional development, student-centered curriculum, exceptional parental support, and a supportive administration.

"Whether Reiche's success is transferable is unknown," observes Casasa. "What we do know is this model really worked for Reiche and other schools may use it to develop their own formula for success."

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