Democratic Leadership in Coalition Schools: Why It’s Necessary, How It Works

No individual has all the skills–and certainly not the time–to carry out all the complex tasks of contemporary leadership. –John Gardner, On Leadership

Coalition principles assert that teaching and learning should be personalized to the maximum feasible extent and that “to capitalize on this personalization, decisions about the details of the course of study, the use of students’ and teachers’ time and the choice of teaching materials and specific pedagogies must be unreservedly placed in the hands of the principal and staff.” Such collaborative decision-making about curriculum takes many forms in CES schools. Picture a faculty meeting, for example, where teachers decide how to document learning based on schoolwide essential questions at their small high school. They talk as a whole group and then work in smaller clusters–teachers concerned with reading skills comfortable on couches, math faculty gathered at the sunny end of the room, science teachers typing and revising at the computer.

Another scene: elementary school faculty members, knowing that the reading test scores of their English language learners don’t reflect their capabilities, study classroom assessment data in a team of bilingual teachers, English teachers, special education teachers, the principal, school psychologist and a paraprofessional. After intensive analysis, they identify ways to improve students’ reading comprehension skills and create performance-based assessments to track progress.

In addition to the notion that it’s imperative for the people closest to the students to have the authority to make decisions about curriculum and instruction, Coalition principles state that the school itself “should model democratic practices that involve all who are directly affected by the school.” Schools have a crucial role in preparing citizens for a participatory democracy–and such participation takes practice. Along with that, students, teachers, and parents have insights and contributions that are essential to the development of a healthy school culture. Such participatory decision-making might take place in many spheres, for example: students in an eleventh and twelfth grade advisory spend a month discussing how to recruit more students of color to their public school of choice. They bring their proposals to the faculty and to the parents’ council and facilitate a community meeting to evaluate solutions. The school chooses by consensus to reach out to community groups, to include explicit anti-racism goals and strategies in its curriculum, and to require for graduation that each student exhibit work toward creating a more just and equitable community.

This issue of Horace explores some of the ways particular schools have strived to put into practice the notions of collaborative decision-making and modeling democratic practice. The road hasn’t always been smooth, but CES educators remain committed to these goals as they experiment with different strategies.

Teacher Leadership: The Head Teacher Model

Throughout its thirty-year history, San Francisco Community School, a K-8 public school in San Francisco’s Excelsior district, has asked a head teacher to lead its seventeen professional staff members and three hundred students. Kristin Bijur, incoming head teacher, describes the head teacher as the school’s instructional leader. “Closing the achievement gap is the center of our work and inquiry. Each teacher is figuring out how to do it, and the head teacher’s role is to lead and coach that inquiry.” The head teacher role rotates among willing teachers–chosen by faculty consensus–on a three-year basis, and head teachers commit to return to the school’s teaching faculty when their terms conclude.

There are a variety of benefits to this system: most practically, the school saves money on salary and can reallocate these resources to achieve more favorable student-teacher ratios. Perhaps more important to Community School faculty, having a head teacher rather than a “principal” creates an atmosphere where teachers-as-decision-makers is the norm.

Jean Bell has been at San Francisco Community School from the start. Originally a parent at the school, she began working as a paraprofessional while her child was in school and stayed on. Reflecting on the history of the school’s shared decision making, she says, “The people who founded the school were parents and teachers who shared a philosophy that they could make the right decisions.” Bell described the school’s search for the right term length for teacher leaders, recalling that over the years, the school had head teachers serve for a single year, then two, and finally three. San Francisco Community School initially required that all teachers cycle through the teacher leader role, but the community came to realize, as outgoing head teacher Tanya Friedman notes, that the requirement was “ultimately limiting to the school”–that is, some people want to be in the classroom full-time, and the teachers felt that they needed to honor participation in all ways.

Several additional leadership structures extend throughout the school community, allowing the head teacher to keep her focus on her role as a critical friend to other teachers. Developmental level teams decide matters relating to curriculum and student progress. The school’s leadership team, with a representative from each developmental level team, provides a forum for thinking about how best to make a decision. For example, staff members wanted to find ways to reduce the noise on the first floor hallway before school and during recess and lunch, so the leadership team decided the matter was best solved by the developmental level teams. Developmental level team

representatives discussed the problem at their weekly meetings and reported back to the lead team on the resulting decisions. “Between the developmental level teams and the leadership teams, everyone here knows that each teacher has authority and power,” says Friedman. The school also relies on a professional development team, a Parents Action Committee –which discusses school policy issues and plans fundraisers and special events for the school–and a school site council, a state-legislated body common to all California schools responsible for reviewing schools’ budgets and evaluating programs.

Having a temporary head teacher rather than a traditional principal serves San Francisco Community School’s goals. The school benefits from a remarkably low turnover rate; it seems that once teachers have had a feel for being at Community, they are loath to leave. The system provides ways of developing leadership in all teachers, so that the loss of one or two does not represent a huge loss of leadership or knowledge. While the notion of term limits has demonstrated liabilities when applied to elected political leaders, San Francisco Community School has built a stable and vibrant culture around revolving and collaborative leadership.

From Team of Leaders to Individual Leader

Like San Francisco Community School, Anzar High School, a public ninth- through twelfth-grade school in rural San Juan Bautista, California, south of San Jose, has built itself around group leadership since it opened in 1994. Charlene McKowen, Anzar’s Director and part of the founding teacher team, recalls the freedom of Anzar’s conception. “We had pressure not to duplicate unnecessary paradigms, and it was an amazing luxury not to recreate what frustrated us. The first year was great–we cleaned the bathrooms, wrote curriculum, hired teachers. We did everything.” The founding teachers, with community support, decided to open the school without a principal. The school was so small, with sixty students and four teachers, that teachers felt that having a principal would only add cost and an extra bureaucratic layer. Anzar’s staff committed itself wholeheartedly to decision-making by consensus.

As it added a grade per year until it reached its current proportions–three hundred and fifty-nine students and twenty-six teachers–Anzar maintained a three-person leadership team, with a new person rotating in to replace a departing member each year. The staff felt success and a sense of sustainability. But after several years, personnel changes caused the leadership team to erode and the school board, in McKowen’s words, “freaked out.” Anzar’s staff persuaded the school board to accept a two-person team, but the faculty didn’t have two members willing to assume the leadership mantle. “It was horrible,” McKowen recalled, “to convince the board and then to go to one person.” And McKowen was, and currently is, the one. At the start of this school year, the school board requested that Anzar move away from its rotating lead teacher model and keep one person, McKowen, as the permanent Director.

Though the Anzar staff felt acute disappointment that their original leadership vision was changing, they realized unanticipated benefits. “The community feels freed up now that there’s one person in charge,” says McKowen. “To some extent, they never knew who to turn to before when we had a three-person leadership team, who was really doing what, and a lot of small and big issues fell right through the cracks. As an example, since I’ve been here,” she says, looking around her office, “parent representatives requested that we create visitor parking spaces. We did it, of course. It was easy. But I heard that they perceived that in the past it would have been difficult to ask for this and make it happen. They didn’t know which one of us to talk with before.” McKowen also notes a subtle but distinct change in communication with parents, the school board, and district personnel, almost as if Anzar finally has a “real” principal. Still adjusting to this leadership change, which transpired at the start of the 2001-2002 school year, the Anzar faculty remains committed to collaborative decision-making regarding teaching and learning, devoting faculty meetings and professional development time to discussing student progress, curriculum, and assessment.

While McKowen is ambivalent about having lost the team leadership structure, Anzar’s experience may be instructive in thinking about the purposes and design of democracy in a school. If the topic is parking spaces or bus schedules, it may well be best to have one person in charge. What’s crucial is that for substantive issues of teaching and learning, those who know the students best–teachers, students, and parents–work together.

Principals as Beacons and Fulcrums

Anzar’s experience demonstrates how successful CES schools tend to rely on a leader who can create structures for collaboration where collaboration is needed and who can quickly resolve administrative issues. Head teacher, director, principal–the title varies, but the model of one person as conductor predominates. Alan Dichter, former principal of Satellite Academy in New York City and now Assistant Superintendent for Executive Leadership Development at New York City’s Board of Education, and Nancy Mohr, educational leadership consultant and past principal of University Heights High School in New York City, write about how consensus-based decision-making functions most effectively with clear leadership by a signal individual. “Leadership can vary and move around, but when it comes down to it, no matter how much decision making is shared, there does have to be someone who is in charge–and we have to know who that is.” Writing in the Harvard Business Review, David A. Garvin and Michael A. Roberto agree with Mohr and Dichter. “The reality is that the leader will make the ultimate decision, but the people participating in the process must believe that their views were considered and that they had a genuine opportunity to influence the final decision.”

Holly Perry, the principal of Academy for the Middle Years Northwest, an alternative public middle school in Philadelphia with two hundred and fifty students and eighteen teachers, concurs with the need for a defined leader, saying, “A school does need a single leader. Day to day schooling is so complex and quixotic. The things that teachers need to pay attention to are so compelling and diverse that you need one person to say, ‘This is what we’re all rallying around.’ It allows teachers an easier way to stay involved.” At AMY (NW), staff and parents run their school collaboratively through participation on a Governance Council, which decides the overall direction of the school, focusing on matters such as the school’s instructional priorities. Perry remains aware of how AMY (NW)’s decision-making process affects how the school community views her leadership role. “I remember sitting at governance council meetings and people looked at me, wanting quick resolutions. I ran those meetings with my head down, literally.” Perry didn’t want to be perceived as having more power than others on the Governance Council “by dint of title–since we were trying to operate by consensus and dialogue, I found that if they couldn’t make eye contact with me, they (and I) were less apt to fall into the old patterns. After a while people got the hang of talking to each other without my mediating or commenting on every remark–and so did I.” Alan Dichter emphasizes the leader’s role as an information gatherer and facilitator. School leaders do their behind-the-scenes information gathering in all sorts of different ways. Some ask teachers to contribute their thoughts in writing on a spontaneous or periodic basis. All listen skillfully to voices from across the school community. “The principal,” Dichter says, “is the protector of the integrity of the system. She’s the person who runs around and makes sure everyone knows what’s going on. You can’t do all your communicating at the meeting–you have to make sure that people are up to speed and have the information they need ahead of time. Meeting time isn’t for getting people prepared to decide. It’s for being sharp and concise and making decisions.” Dichter notes that there are times when a new teacher deserves to be heard but the wisdom of a twenty-year veteran has got to count for more, somehow. The principal’s work is to balance and filter opinions and experience. (See “Leadership Paradoxes Common in New and Small Schools” on page 18 for more on the school leader’s role.)

Even in schools where teachers see themselves as generalists, able to teach across disciplines and perform multiple functions in the school, not everyone can be in on every decision. Where should people direct their energies? What decisions should be made democratically and which should one or two people make? How does one balance the need for efficiency with the need for inclusion?

In Bainbridge Island, Washington, Catherine Camp is the director of the Commodore Center alternative programs, five distinct educational programs grouped with seven community service programs. Camp describes the relationship among the programs as a “spontaneously generated ecosystem in its sixth year as a whole school community.” The Commodore Center’s alternative programs include homeschool support, an alternative high school, a day treatment program for elementary students with profound disabilities, a contract studies program and the family-centered Odyssey multiage K-8 school. As the different programs were founded, Camp, the teachers and the involved parents worked to define roles as clearly as possible in order to make decision-making flow smoothly. “For the first few years we spent a lot of time focused on who makes what decision. We talked explicitly about teacher responsibility, parent responsibility, and administrative responsibility.” Camp says the work in defining roles rewarded Odyssey parents and staff members, allowing them to manage a wholly collaboratively-governed school program.

Superlative Communication is Indispensable

Successful collaboration is completely dependent on powerful communication skills. “The kids notice how we communicate with each other. We want the adults here to model how a community works and we do that all the time, when we’re with the kids and when we’re not,” says San Francisco Community School’s Kristen Bijur. Teachers, students and parents use the school’s conflict resolution policy to work through communication impediments and tensions. They have posted the policy around school prominently and frequently, and discussions with staff and students reveal that it lives in their bones. (See page 11 for the San Francisco Community School conflict resolution policy.)

While staff and students at San Francisco Community School use their conflict resolution policy to help nurture clear communication and respect, its focus on equity and its emphasis on parental involvement in decision-making compel the staff to find ways to extend communication to families that speak languages other than English. Ruth Grabowski, both a San Francisco Community School parent and the school’s Community Outreach Specialist, points out ways that the school strives to improve. “There’s a huge language barrier for some parents. We’re working on that by having interpreters at meetings. We need more Chinese and Spanish speaking parents to be a part of the school. We did have a key breakthrough this year, because Chinese and Spanish speaking parents are on our school site council now.” The school also provides childcare for evening parent meetings. Alan Dichter acknowledges the importance of this attention to detail, commenting, “Good collaborative decision-making organizations value the depth of input. They develop systems and mechanisms to surface all divergent voices.”

Teachers at Anzar High School also credit clear communication with their collaborative management successes. Charlene McKowen talked about how Anzar’s communication guidelines, created collectively by the faculty to cut through misperception and frustration, are “the key to our success. The communication guidelines are revolutionary. They are a real part of all faculty communication. Once we had them, we had norms. We still needed skills, but this was a huge step for us.” The communication guidelines, posted large and centrally, immediately draw attention in McKowen’s office. (See page 12 for the Anzar communication guidelines.)

The communication guidelines provide a framework for teachers to think deeply and critically about their work and that of their colleagues, allow challenges, disagreements, and dissent to be voiced constructively and with minimal personal antagonism. At the conclusion of each Anzar faculty meeting, teachers take time to rate their adherence to the guidelines, collecting their responses in written form, and the first task for the following week is to review–and discuss, as needed–the communication assessment. This essential weekly practice keeps the guidelines at the center of the conversation, and helps to create confidence among all twenty-six teachers that their views will be heard and understood.

Thinking for the Long Term

Nancy Mohr reminds schools, “You can do anything you want; you just can’t do everything you want.” An advantage of limited time is that it forces schools to make choices, and if they choose wisely, they can use collaborative time to focus on the decisions that keep them connected to the core values of their schools and commitments to their students. This awareness of limits within collaborative leadership allows school community members to focus on what they know best for the overall good of the school. The result can be a school where the teachers, students and parents–the decision-makers–experience commitment that transcends their personal fortunes. “Once you’ve worked here, you always think on behalf of the whole staff, the whole school,” says Anzar’s Charlene McKowen. “You think for the long term when you’re a part of making a decision.”

Creating a school that functions democratically is not an easy task. But at schools where teachers are focused on making curriculum decisions collaboratively–rather than relying solely on curriculum created by far away corporate publishers–the curriculum is connected to the students. When a school develops structures for participatory decision-making, the needs of the whole community are much more likely to be understood and met. And as a significant proportion of teachers, students, and parents develop leadership skills, the chances are good that the school and its democratic culture will sustain the inevitable loss of its founders or key visionaries. Despite its challenges, democratic school leadership places decisions about teaching and learning in the hands of the people who know the students best, and it offers a powerful model of how a participatory democracy can function to serve the common good.

References Cited (see Horace’s Where to Go for More, page 19, for additional resources):

Garvin, David A. and Roberto, Michael A. “What You Don’t Know About Making Decisions,” Harvard Business Review, September, 2001

Mohr, Nancy and Dichter, Alan. “Building a Learning Organization,” Phi Delta Kappan, June, 2001