PORTLAND — Reiche Elementary School kindergarten teacher Kevin Brewster finished reading a story book to his students at 11:30 Friday morning, stood up, and left the classroom.
It was a point that Brewster reaches every day this school year, and a routine he will repeat each day of the next school year, too.
Brewster leaves his students each day not out of frustration or negligence, but out of duty: Reiche is Portland’s only teacher-led school, and he is one of two so-called teacher leaders who replace, to some degree, the traditional principal.
Each morning, Brewster teaches kindergarten literacy while colleague Christine Keegan performs administrative duties. After lunch, he takes over supporting students and teachers throughout the building.
The leadership model, implemented this year after former Principal Marcia Gendron was transferred to the East End Community School, has been very successful, school staff said. Five months into the school year, just before February vacation, they voted to continue the experiment next year, with 48 of 52 teachers and education support staffers voting in favor.
Brewster is reluctant to take much credit for the new program’s success. While he and Keegan form the school’s administrative hub and are the direct link to the School Department’s central office, every teacher at the school must participate on one of the four standing committees that perform much of the decision making, on everything from curriculum and assessment to discipline to after-school programming.
“It really is diffused. We’re nominally the lead teachers, but ultimately it’s up to the whole team,” Brewster said. “Part of the beauty of this model is it acknowledges that there is a lot of expertise in this building, and that’s the first thing we should tap into.”
Being as deeply involved in the day-to-day operations and long-term development of the school means more work for teachers, said second-grade teacher Laura Graves. She said she now works about five hours more per week than she did last year.
Graves originally voted against transitioning to the teacher-led model last year, because she thought adding administrative tasks to teachers’ workloads would come at the expense of their work in the classroom. She didn’t think it would be worth the effort, she said.
“I’ve been delighted that I was wrong,” Graves said. “I’ve been blown away by the amount of work that my colleagues are willing to put in.”
It was clear within a few weeks of the first day of school that the model would work, she said, largely because the system cultivates what Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. called “buy-in,” and what Brewster called “empowerment” of the staff.
“I can see how my work (on the Enrichment Committee, which deals with parent and community outreach, as well as assemblies and after-school programs) impacts learning in a positive way,” Graves said.
Each of the steering committees has a parent representative, and the school has worked closely with its PTO over the last year to help with fundraising, Brewster said. Communication between parents and school staff has rarely been better, she said.
Decentralizing the school’s administration has made teachers more responsive to parents’ issues, Graves said. In situations where teachers would have deferred to the principal in the past – like one instance this year, when a distraught parent came to the school looking for their child, who had not returned home from school – teachers can now step up and deal with issues directly. In that case, the child was found after some conferencing of teachers and a few phone calls.
Reiche’s model may not work everywhere. “Is it transferable?,” Morse said. “That … is probably the $100,000 question. I wouldn’t transport it across the city or across the state, I would look for similar situations.”
The school was built in the 1970s with an open floor plan. Classrooms have since been devised with movable walls, but the layout and inevitable eavesdropping on neighboring classes naturally encourages staff to share teaching methods and a “they’re all our kids” philosophy, Brewster said.
“Leadership is situational and in this particular situation,” he said, “this was a model that really worked for Reiche Elementary.”
Reiche Elementary School teacher leader Kevin Brewster asks kindergartner Liam Street, right, a question about his literacy assignment as Chae-Hee Park, left, and Brandon Chacon work to color and create a book of rhyming words during class Friday morning. Brewster is one of two teachers who share administrative duties at the Portland school.