ATHENS — When their principal resigned a few months ago for medical reasons, teachers at Athens Community School wondered what to do.

The school has 14 teachers and about 120 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. It shared its principal with another school, so she was in the school only a few days per week last year.

“She was splitting her time and it seemed like when we needed something or something came up, she wasn’t available for us,” said Tammy Moulton, an eighth-grade teacher who has taught in Athens for 30 years. “Between obligations at another school and meetings she had to attend, she wasn’t often available, and we found ourselves doing a lot of things anyway. We had to make decisions and get things done on a daily basis.”

One teacher saw an article about a “teacher-led” school — there is no principal and teachers are fully responsible for all decisions — and they decided the model was something they wanted to explore.

In March, a small group of teachers formed a steering committee to look into the idea and visited Portland’s Howard C. Reiche Community School, the only teacher-led school in Maine. There are 70 such schools around the country, according to the Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative, which is run by two nonprofit groups, Education Evolving and The Center for Teaching Quality.

With so many years of experience as a teacher, Moulton said she and a few others were approached about taking over as principal, but she didn’t like the idea of not teaching. The teacher-led model was an alternative.

After getting approval from the school board last week, the teachers of Athens Community School are launching a one-year pilot program as a teacher-led school.

“We thought it kind of looks a lot like what we’re already doing; what about looking into it?” Moulton said.

LEADERSHIP NEEDS

Teacher-led schools date back to the 19th century and one-room schoolhouses led by a single teacher. The title “principal” is derived from “principal teacher,” often known today as a “lead teacher,” said John Wright, director of strategy for the National Education Association.

More recently, teacher-led schools have become popular in the charter school movement. In 2009, the Math and Science Leadership Academy in Denver became the first teacher-led school started by a teacher’s union and functioning in a public school district, Wright said.

In Maine, Reiche School, a kindergarten-through-fifth-grade public elementary school, became teacher-led in 2011 after it had a high turnover rate of principals.

“Teacher-led schools have gained momentum,” Wright said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a tidal wave, but there is certainly a movement.”

He cited Reiche School as one of the most successful instances of a school converting from a traditional principal-led leadership to a teacher-led one.

Yet the overall success of the school is debatable. The Department of Education gave the Reiche school an F letter grade in 2014, and data shows that only 50 percent of students were proficient in mathematics in the 2013-2014 school year and only 55 percent were proficient in reading. The statewide average was 63 percent proficiency in mathematics and 71 percent in reading.

However, there are notable differences between Reiche and the Athens school. The Portland school has more than 400 students and about three times the number of teachers. It is also in an urban area where 78 percent of students qualified for free and reduced-price lunch this year. Enrollment has grown by more than 70 students since 2011 and crowding is a concern.

Athens got a C from the state last year, with its students exceeding proficiency in mathematics, but falling just below the state average in reading. The school is in a rural area where enrollment has been consistent and poverty rates are lower — according to the education department, 64 percent of students in Athens qualified for free and reduced-price lunch this year.

The Athens teachers who visited Reiche noted differences in the two schools, including their sizes and staff numbers, but still believed the model would work for them.

In an anonymous poll taken by teachers and staff at Athens Community School, 16 people voted in support of the teacher-led model, while two rejected it.

“We cannot say who was opposed to the idea,” said Amy Bown, a second-grade teacher and member of the steering committee, a group of four teachers who explored the model. “We can surmise that those opposed were reluctant to take on additional responsibilities, or feel a need for a traditional structure, but this is speculative.”

Being a principal is not easy, and it has become increasingly more demanding in recent years with additional education requirements and standards such as the Common Core curriculum, state assessments and teacher evaluations, said Dick Durost, the executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association.

Durost wouldn’t comment directly on the teacher-led model except to say, “We believe it is important to have a traditional principal in every school.”

“The job has become so much more involved in the last 10 to 20 years than it once was, and we believe there needs to be that go-to person in the building,” he said.

Yet members of the Athens school board and the Alternative Organizational Structure 94 superintendent said they support the idea, after hearing a presentation from the teachers on the model and approving the one-year pilot at a board meeting last week. The school has been part of AOS 94 since leaving the Madison school district in 2013.

“I was actually against it from the beginning,” School Board Chairman Alan Linkletter said. “But all the teachers were really for it, and we trust their judgment. I’ve been in other schools, and the teachers here really are exceptional and extremely professional.”

Linkletter said he initially opposed the idea because he was concerned that there would be a lack of leadership — that no one would be available during the day to discipline students, speak with parents or handle administrative paperwork — but then he realized that many of the Athens teachers already were performing those tasks. When the school shared a principal last year and at the beginning of the current school year, she was in the building at most two and a half days a week, he said.

Cynthia Streznewski resigned earlier this year, and since then the school has been running under the leadership of a single lead teacher, with others pitching in to help.

“It’s kind of what they’ve been doing anyway,” Linkletter said. “We know it will be a lot more work, but I think they’re willingness to step up to the plate was what convinced us.”

TEACHER-LED MODEL

The new model, which will be similar to the Reiche School’s, will use a three-teacher leadership team responsible for discipline, paperwork, budgeting, teacher assessments, communication with parents and attending meetings.

Other teachers will be divided into four committees: the steering committee, responsible for teacher-led school research, communication between committees and updates on the model to the school board; a professional development committee, responsible for workshops, educational development and webinars; an instructional leadership committee, responsible for data, assessment and curriculum; and a climate committee, responsible for personnel, wellness and school safety.

Next year’s inaugural leadership team hasn’t been decided yet, but the steering committee, the only committee formed so far, is hopeful that the three chosen teachers will come from three varied areas of the school: elementary education, middle school education and special education.

“I think by playing to everyone’s strengths and what they are good at, it will actually make the leadership stronger,” Bown said. “Right now our biggest concern is time. We will need time to do all the committee work and make sure everything is done, because maybe there were things done behind the scenes before that we didn’t know about.”

The lead teachers will be given $6,000 stipends and be required to work extra hours, while committee members will get per diem stipends totaling no more than $4,000 per committee. The cost of a full-time principal would be about $60,000, so the school is saving about $30,000 under the teacher-led model, Linkletter said.

“I think there will be a cost savings, but that’s not our main focus,” said David Hatch, a special education teacher who has taught in Athens for two years. “Principals come; principals go. They have their agendas. They have their educational initiatives. It’s all good stuff. But these people know this house and that’s why they said, ‘We want to take care of our own house. We don’t want somebody to come in and tell us how to run our business for a couple years and then go on to something else.'”

The Maine Department of Education does not have requirements for school leadership structure, and in general it is a decision that is made on the district level, said Rachelle Tome, the department’s chief academic officer.

The district is asking the leadership team teachers to take classes to work toward an assistant administrative certificate, AOS 94 Superintendent Kevin Jordan said. Harmony Elementary School, which is also in the school district and shared a principal with Athens through this year, is currently hiring for a teaching principal, someone who works as a part-time teacher and part-time administrator.

“I think in rural Maine in schools the size of Athens or smaller, if the teachers want to take on that leadership role, it’s something we should allow them to attempt,” Jordan said. “I’m very excited about what’s going on in Athens, and I think the board and I are both excited to see how it works out.”

PLANNING AHEAD

The National Education Association does not have a stance on teacher-led schools but is supportive of schools that want to explore the model, Wright said.

“We have supported and worked to help our members succeed where they want to do this. We see it as a positive expansion of teacher leadership,” he said.

With the right group of teachers in place, Durost also said he thought the model could be successful. But the school should have detailed plans in place for administrative duties and discipline during the school day so teachers aren’t taken away from their classrooms, he said.

“This type of approach probably can work, but I think it takes a unique situation with the right group of people to pull it off,” he said. “With the group and the community, they need to agree on what the roles of teachers are and who is going to make what decisions, whether it is something as simple as a discipline issue or any of the myriad events that can occur.”

In the long run, a teacher-led model also raises concerns about hiring and whether prospective teachers will be interested in taking on additional leadership roles, he said.

“They may be in a situation right now where the personnel may click. They may mesh really well, but when one of the teachers on that leadership team moves on or retires, will there be a process in place to replace them?” Durost said.

For now, the teachers and school board are taking the model one year at a time. “If it doesn’t work out, we can always go back,” Linkletter said.

For schools that are interested in becoming teacher-led, Wright said one of the most important first steps they can take is to visit and meet with teachers at a teacher-led school — something Athens already has done. Meeting with parents and the community to inform them of the transition and how the model works is equally important, he said.

“It’s important to take a full year to plan. There are certain things that will come up that they haven’t planned for or considered,” he said. “We have found though that the teacher-led model is often one that parents embrace because it helps foster a closer relationship with teachers. If done well, it can be very rewarding for parents, students and teachers alike.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

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Twitter: @rachel_ohm