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School Stories

Cooperative Leadership

Leadership Buffalo_Team Building Buffalo NY (13)

Image by michaelcardus via Flickr

Nearby me, a local, public, elementary school is shifting to a community leadership model instead of hiring a new principal. I am almost tempted to not write another word, because that statement is provocative enough.

The Reiche Community School is a complex place with over 25 languages spoken and a history of experimentation. It’s hard to imagine one person who would be dynamic enough to adequately understand all the perspectives of the stakeholders involved in a place like this. As an urban school, the community is used to coming together to address challenges, and I think this prepares them well for this new system of decision-making and accountability.

Questions I have after reading the article are: how is the parent and district rep chosen? Could they go farther in creating a democratic structure for representational government in the school? What kind of leadership development support will be offered to this team? Will only the lead teachers be paid in this leadership team? If so, why not pay the other members of the team for their time as well? How are students involved?

What are your thoughts? Are principals necessary? Are they better suited in some cases than in others? Would you even be willing to try a community leadership model such as this at your school?

About Adam Burk

Adam aims to serve the greater good; alleviate unnecessary suffering; and create beautiful, sane human communities in concert with the living planet. Recently, he has helped to rebuild local food systems in Maine in large part through school food services, organized the TEDxDirigo conference, and is a digital organizer with the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).


14 thoughts on “Cooperative Leadership

  1. The charter school in which I work currently has a shared leadership model instead of a principal. I think it suits our school because we work in circle for our decision making process from the trustees to the guides (teachers) to the students. So having a circle (team) for leadership makes sense and models the school philosophy.

    Posted by Kasey Errico | June 5, 2011, 8:52 pm
    • Awesome Kasey! What grade levels is your school? Are you by chance at Ridge and Valley Charter School? I am guessing because of your use of Guides instead of teachers. Ridge and Valley is one of my favorite schools.

      Posted by Adam Burk | June 5, 2011, 9:26 pm
      • Yes – I’m at Ridge and Valley Charter School! So glad you’re a fan! It’s a k-8 school. I’ve been sending some of the posts from Cooperative Catalyst to some of my colleagues and they thought they knew you – that you had visited the school before. They speak highly of you. I am so inspired by what I read on this site – thanks for your part in making this a great place to think about education and our work with children.

        Posted by Kasey Errico | June 5, 2011, 9:35 pm
      • Kasey, I did visit Ridge and Valley back in 2008. I had a blast hanging out and remain inspired by what is happening there. I invite you to post here about the work you are doing there. It’s a story that needs to be told! I’ve actually been talking about Ridge and Valley since my first post here on the co-op!

        Thanks for your kind words and please send my best to everyone. Thanks for joining the conversation and I look forward to more!

        Posted by Adam Burk | June 5, 2011, 9:55 pm
  2. Adam and Kasey, do you think schools like this work best when founded and staffed according to their democratic principles, or is a cultural conversion just as effective?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | June 6, 2011, 9:46 am
    • Chad,

      Kasey will be able to articulate this more, but my understanding is that this school grew out of a very engaged community that had gathered around a new vision for humanity and education. A significant influence is Thomas Berry’s work and the call to enter the ecozoic era. So, the school is designed to teach earth literacy in addition to the mandatory standards.

      The organizational structure was decided collectively and as Kasey notes, this community was used to democratic decision making through the circle format. They had consulted with Peer Spirit on the development of their model I believe.

      Long-term I think cultural conversion can be effective, but there needs to be some champions and training to turn the ship in this direction.

      With hope,

      Posted by Adam Burk | June 6, 2011, 10:01 am
      • Autonomy is key to the question here. See the inventory (linked below) for areas of autonomy and how to get autonomy. There is a tendency for people starting these up to jump right to the nuts and bolts. Studying these I can say for sure autonomy first, nuts and bolts second.

        When people look for “what kind of training can be provided?” they are likely going to find conventional training that perpetuates the status quo.”How does leadership run in schools with teacher autonomy might be a better pursuit”, but there are many restrictions without autonomy.

        Teachers innovating in this way need the ability to seek and spend time/money on things outside the box. One of the main reasons for states and districts to do this is to see how teachers innovate both with the way they work and with the kinds of schools they create (ultimately seeking better student learning). More restrictions constrain the ability to accomplish this.

        Posted by Kim Farris-Berg | June 6, 2011, 11:18 am
  3. Hello everyone ~ I have been engaged with Education|Evolving ( in a 3-year project exploring teacher autonomy in K-12, public schools.

    Our first product of this is a National Inventory of Schools with Teacher Autonomy, now available on our Web site.

    We invite you to explore:
    • How K-12 school teachers make arrangements with states, school districts, unions, and others to get teachers autonomy to control what matters for school success.
    • What we mean by “teacher autonomy”. And, the areas of authority teachers can collectively secure, such as selecting a learning program that works best for students at the school, selecting colleagues, and setting school budgets.
    • A list of schools with teacher autonomy, with links to profiles of each school describing the nature of the autonomy and the kinds of learning programs teachers create. Some include photos and media mentions. (We’re adding the Portland, ME school shortly… We are in touch with them.)

    • A nationwide map, pinpointing the locations of schools with teacher autonomy.

    If we’re missing any school, please let me know!

    We’ve also been exploring the obvious next question: What do teachers DO with the autonomy? Those findings will be published in January.

    Later this month (by around 6/10) we’re also posting a new resource about the evolution of teacher autonomy in schools (they’ve been around a long while!).

    You might also be interested in our Delicious link, where we tag articles related to teacher autonomy:

    Posted by Kim Farris-Berg | June 6, 2011, 10:32 am
  4. Kasey and Adam —

    We encourage steering clear as describing and evaluating these as “schools without principals”. People first perceived the automobile as a carriage without a horse. All sorts of fears about that, but we know how it turned out!

    It’s better to focus-in on what teachers are doing vs. what the school doesn’t have. Teachers are running schools collectively as professional partners (formally–some are organized as cooperatives for example–and informally).

    Partnerships are the organizational form professionals operate successfully in many fields: medicine, law, engineering, architecture, accounting, consulting. Partnerships work.

    Posted by Kim Farris-Berg | June 6, 2011, 10:42 am
    • Great feedback, thanks Kim!

      Posted by Adam Burk | June 6, 2011, 10:45 am
      • Adam actually articulated it very well. I think it can be easier to change when you have a specific frame or lens that already has the community members thinking in this way. It is challenging to do things that are different than what we know or have experienced, even when we are focused on shifting the paradigm.

        I think we still needed to reground ourselves in our school’s mission each step along the way. We did have a principal for the first years of the school, but when the principal left, it was an opportunity to further realize the mission. Having a shared leadership model is much more in synch with the rest of our school.

        However, I would hope that if members of a community were motivated to change from within, that it is possible. There is no doubt that it takes hard work and commitment, but the work is so meaningful.

        I like a lot of what Kim said and I agree that people are anxious if they think/perceive there isn’t leadership. I like the question about how does leadership run in schools with teacher autonomy. I think the timing of our school’s shift to a shared leadership model made sense for the time. Perhaps earlier might have been too difficult for people to embrace as we were still working out so many other needs and logistics in starting the school. We are just completing our 7th year.

        It’s great to know that there are so many others out there thinking about these very issues. -Kasey

        Posted by Kasey Errico | June 6, 2011, 7:38 pm
  5. We’re releasing a new resource today on Education|Evolving’s Web site. It is a timeline describing the evolution of teacher autonomy — I think some will be surprised that this has been going on for as long as it has!

    Please check it out. Feedback welcome.

    Posted by Kim Farris-Berg | June 21, 2011, 11:19 am

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