The Spirit of Group Governance: Running a School Together

At this public Texas elementary school, decision making falls into the hands of many.

At this public Texas elementary school, decision making falls into the hands of many.
The Spirit of Group Governance

Jayne John works with students at Alice Carlson Applied Learning Center, where decision making includes students, teachers, administrators, parents, and community members.

Credit: Jayne John

A few years ago, after a month in which more than 300 visitors came to tour and observe at our school, I asked for student volunteers from each class to attend a problem-solving meeting. As one of two teacher-directors at our 380-student, K-5 school, I explained to the children that something needed to be done to address the problems developing from the increasing numbers of visitors.

The kids decided that the first thing to do was to survey classrooms to find out what kinds of problems students and teachers were experiencing. After designing a survey instrument, the team met with each class to give an overview of the situation and gather data. Over the next several weeks, the team reviewed their data and discussed solutions.

Among the changes they came up with were designating monthly visitor dates, hosting information sessions for visitors, providing guided tours of the building and classrooms, and implementing a plan to ensure more even distribution of visitors in classrooms. Over time, the students visited area museums and historic sites to learn from docents and tour guides and arranged for those professionals to provide training and consulting for the team.

An unanticipated result has been numerous invitations for the students to make presentations about our school to audiences such as the chamber of commerce, the school board, and groups from local universities and businesses. Getting children directly involved with school operations is very much in the spirit of group governance that we've followed since opening the Alice Carlson Applied Learning Center in Ft. Worth, Texas, in 1992. We've established a management culture based on collaboration, communication, and consensus among all the school's stakeholders -- educators, parents, students, and the community.

Our school was created during a restructuring of our district's education system. In the early 1990s, the superintendent, the school board, the chamber of commerce, and corporate leaders formed an alliance to implement several reform initiatives, including an active, project-based curriculum designed to connect school directly with real-life experiences. From that came a proposal for a public school of choice -- open to all students in the district -- focused on this kind of applied learning. The only requirement for a child to attend our school is an annual commitment of twenty hours of service per adult family member.

Like other schools in Texas, we follow a philosophy of site-based management, under which many choices about a school's operation are made locally. We're different, however, in the number of people we involve in decision making. As required by the state, we have a school management team made up of administrators and elected parents and staff members. But Alice Carlson is really run by six design teams comprised of volunteer parents and staff members. These teams are responsible for areas such as governance, the instructional program, operations, community involvement and services, special events, and communications. Every parent and faculty member is asked to join at least one design team, and though participation varies from person to person, we average about sixty adults actively involved in the school's governance.

All design teams meet on the same night every nine weeks and their meetings are open to the public. At the end of each meeting night, all the teams come togeher to update the entire group. During their work, team members can exchange e-mail and use the Internet to strengthen ties between our school and the greater community. Sometimes, two or more teams focus on different aspects of the same project. When the instructional design team, for example, identified a need for a database of parent and community resources that could be used by students and teachers, they asked the community team to assist with the effort.

As "teacher-directors" -- a title that captures our role as instructional leaders better than "principal" -- my co-director and I work hard to practice participatory management. I believe this model fosters the idea that learners must take informed risks, have a voice in governance issues, and develop autonomy. When the design teams were discussing issues such as how to develop and evaluate projects and how to make assessment more meaningful, mine was but one voice among many. I do have to attend to some of the traditional duties of a principal, but I'm constantly in classrooms and working with children in different ways, taking a much stronger instructional role than most traditional administrators.

Our governance system reflects the philosophy that all members of our school community must learn to apply their skills and knowledge to concrete problems. We believe that better decisions get made when more voices are heard and everyone becomes part of a consensus.

Parents aren't just made to feel welcome at our school; they are expected to participate as actual partners in teaching and learning. Faculty members are the managers of the curriculum -- using state and district frameworks as guides, they decide what, when, and how to teach. Students have an unusual amount of freedom and responsibility for their own learning. They move about the building as needed to the library, science lab, art studio, offices, or anyplace they can find a free telephone, computer, printer, or scanner. We're not only teaching them to be proactive learners and to participate in decisions about their education, but we are also modeling that in the way we run the school.

Just before we opened, staff and parents met for a three-day working retreat to articulate a common mission for Alice Carlson and invent its system of shared governance. Several parents who worked with us throughout that time still talk about how being included made them feel. One told me: "It's amazing to think that a school faculty would take the chance on having parents sit in with them and plan how the school operates. You allowed us to give our ideas and have those ideas actually used. I knew that if the school respected and valued parents like that, my children were in good hands."

This article originally published on 7/1/1997

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