For 20 years the door to the principal’s office at Vinalhaven School has been a revolving one. This year however, students, parents and staff alike began the 2004-05 school year with a great feeling of hope that the revolving door will be stopped once and for all. The school staff is trying out a new governance structure that has its roots in site-based management and relies heavily on teamwork.
(In a traditional model of school administration the decisions come from the top, down, i.e. school board, superintendent, principal, teachers.)
George Joseph, who has been SAD 8 Superintendent for seven years, has seen five principals come and go in the Vinalhaven School. During the latest principal search last spring it became apparent to Joseph that the old way wasn’t going to work anymore.
“Looking at all the new responsibilities for a principal here was overwhelming,” said Joseph. “We had decent candidates and we found a principal who we thought could do it, but that person accepted another offer. It took years of trying to come to the realization that we needed to try something new.”
The new structure empowers teachers to make decisions at the lowest possible level using a hierarchy of teams and team leaders. Vinalhaven’s hierarchy of leadership begins with individual teachers who are members of Grade Level Teams (GLTs). Each GLT has one team leader who is a member of the Leadership Team. The Leadership Team answers to the school leader, who takes the place of the traditional principal. The school leader answers to the superintendent, and he to the School Board.
According to Joseph, the team concept “came out of necessity.” It is an extension of a practice implemented in the school a few years ago, known as “team time,” in which teachers are given specific time each day to meet with their colleagues to discuss issues, integrate lessons and work on new requirements such as the Maine State Learning Results. In site-based management models such as Vinalhaven’s, decision-making is more evenly distributed among staff members, therefore alleviating much of the day-to-day stress normally felt by the principal.
With the team concept in mind and approval from state Education Commissioner Susan Gendron, SAD 8 was able to hire Mike Felton as the new school leader. Felton began his career in education at Vinalhaven School in 2000 as an Island Institute Fellow.
Felton is not a certified principal, but Joseph and his hiring committee felt confident that he would be good for Vinalhaven School. According to K-2 Team Leader Jean Thompson, “The choice of Mike for the school leader, his willingness to listen, his support and his rapport with students and staff alike all are big reasons that everything seems to be going so well. He is a real team player.”
Felton says he knows this governance structure is the right thing for Vinalhaven School. “Many charter schools and high schools going through educational reform have administrations that empower teachers and use the team model for organizing and running the school,” he said. “Regardless of who was chosen as principal or ‘school leader’ I thought this new model made sense for Vinalhaven – for me, as a first year administrator, it was essential. Trying to be the principal of a K-12 school and make policy that applies to five-year-olds and 18-year-olds is no easy task.
“You throw on top of this the growing state and federal requirements on administrators such as No Child Left Behind, the Maine State Learning Results and local assessment systems and it’s a job few people can do well on their own. The Leadership Team helps to ensure that policies from behavior to attendance work for the elementary, middle and high school students.”
While it is not perfect, the team concept appears to be working.
One drawback of this governance structure is that it requires a lot of extra time. Teachers, particularly Team Leaders, are required to attend many meetings.
“We have a great amount of meeting demands on our time,” said Felton, “but we see that as time invested that will repay itself tenfold later in the year by preventing problems before they start and helping everyone feel they are making progress to stated goals.”
Thompson, who is also the school literacy specialist, agrees that time spent now will pay off in the end. “We are all interested in working for the betterment of the school,” she said. “We are all very supportive of each other and are willing to listen to each other’s concerns and work out solutions.
“The work that the Leadership Team put in this summer laying the groundwork for the present school year helped in transitioning everyone,” Thompson continued. “This type of leadership lets all staff members have a hand in decision-making. Everything doesn’t come from the top down. The communication between the staff is much better. We still have a few bugs to work out, but it is much better than it has been in the past. The school climate is much improved. There will always be complaints, but I feel that there are fewer than ever before, and I have been here a long time!”
Both Joseph and Felton are quick to point out that by no means is this a finished model of administration. “This is being overseen by the School Board,” said Joseph. “There are glitches, it is evolving and changing. But with this model we are able to be more responsive to changes in education.”
“We’re making adjustments as we go,” agreed Felton, “but that’s a sign of a healthy and evolving system.” As for the door to his new office, “I think this is our best chance to throw the revolving door into Carver’s Harbor.”