Principal-free zone: Early reviews good for teacher-led school in Portland

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PORTLAND — The first few months of school were not all that different for Reiche Elementary School students this year.

“I don’t think the students even noticed,” Reiche teacher Kevin Brewster said.

But there was a difference: Last year, Reiche became a teacher-led school. There are no administrators, no principal, no assistant principal in the building.

The School Board approved the experimental program earlier this year, and two teacher leaders were elected by their peers. Brewster and Christine Keegan take turns in the principal’s office, handling the duties usually taken care of by administrators.

“It’s a horizontal organization,” Keegan said. “We’re just the spokespeople who occupy this office. It isn’t hierarchical.”

Important decisions that need to be made, such as changes to the curriculum or purchasing new textbooks, are sent to one of four teacher committees. Every teacher in the school must participate in a committee.

“The teachers are invested. They don’t sit on things,” Brewster said. “If we feel like this is the direction we want to go, we do it.”

He said that decisions under the teacher-leader program have actually happened faster than when the school was run with a traditional principal-teacher model.

Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. agreed that the teacher-leader model appears to be going well.

“You can do a lot of stuff on paper ahead of time, and it looks good, but the reality is always different,” Morse said. “In this case, it’s better.”

Morse said the teachers at the school are owning the program, and that the staff seems to be quickly coming up with solutions to problems, rather than just lists of problems.

But both Keegan and Brewster said it’s not just the teachers who have been working hard: parents have been an integral part of the school’s early success.

“The teacher leaders’ doors have been wide open to us,” said Judy Watson, a Parent Teacher Organization leader who has two children at Reiche. “They’ve been very open to our considerations.”

Watson said there was an incident on a school bus where students were being bullied, partially, she said, because the bus was so crowded.

“We brought the issue to (the teachers’) attention, and they fixed the problem almost immediately,” she said.

Teachers have been volunteering to ride the bus in the mornings and the evenings to make sure all the students are safe.

“They really nipped that in the bud,” Watson said.

Jeremy Stein, who has two children at Reiche and is a teacher in Falmouth, said the teacher leaders have been very responsive to his emails and other communication. He also said some early reservations his family had about Brewster being stretched too thin has been resolved.

Because Brewster splits his time between being in the classroom and working in the office, he spends half his day with his students. He teaches literacy, and another teacher works on math with his class.

“It actually worked out well,” Stein said.

Like most people in the Reiche community, though, Stein said it is too early to tell if the teacher-leader program has been a total success.

“The real test will come when there’s a crisis, like when there’s a teacher who’s underperforming,” he said. “That hasn’t happened yet.”

Reiche teachers are distributing surveys to all their students’ parents and guardians to check in on the school’s progress through this transition. The results are not yet in, but Brewster said the surveys he’s seen have been very positive.

Additionally, the school recently did an anonymous survey of all the staff to see how they believe things have gone.

He said 98 percent of staff reported that the team approach is responsive to issues, and that the staff is working together well.

“I think this really bodes well,” Brewster said.

However, both he and Keegan said it was far too early to tell whether the program would ultimately be successful for the school. They are just beginning work on the school budget.

“Ask us again in June,” Keegan said. “But even if we change course (after this year), it won’t be because we failed.”

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.

Sidebar Elements

Reiche Elementary School teacher leaders Christine Keegan, left, and Kevin Brewster in what used to be the school’s principal’s office. Now, Keegan and Brewster share some of the administrative duties.