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A Beacon of Excellence – and Agency

A few months ago, I wrote about a visit to The Avalon School in St. Paul, Minnesota. Avalon is a small, teacher-powered school that has no principal and a fully democratic decision-making structure. It was an inspiring place, one that had “the feeling” as my colleagues and I will jokingly say. “The feeling” is not a term that’s going to find its way into a peer-reviewed journal article. It’s shorthand, really, for a school with great energy, where students and adults alike seem to have purpose and want to be there. Avalon was a school like that, but it left us with some wonderings. What does teacher agency look like in a school with a more traditional leadership structure? What does it look like in a district public school? What does it look like in a school where many students may be economically disadvantaged, or undocumented, or from traditionally marginalized groups? PS 172 – also known as the Beacon School of Excellence - in Brooklyn is such a school. Though not large by New York City standards, Beacon serves about 550 students in grades PreK to 5th grade. Nearly three quarters of its students qualify for free and reduced meals, and a quarter of its students are English language learners. The building wasn’t fancy. On the day we were there, we got to experience an old heating system that warmed some rooms to about 80 degrees, making it necessary to open windows on a cold day in December. Many of the classrooms felt small for the numbers of students and adults who were in them. Which is all to say that Beacon is a school many teachers and school leaders will recognize and relate to. And it is a school that is a beautiful example of what is possible when teachers have agency.  

Our visit began with an observation of a grade level team meeting. Each week, each grade level team spends 90 minutes working together – during the school day - on a variety of topics, usually chosen by the team itself. Classroom walks (opportunities to observe and discuss what colleagues are doing) are a common activity among the teams. As principal Erika Gundersen noted, “We have so much expertise in the building. We need to take advantage of that and share it.” Classroom walks aren’t just a casual exercise. When Beacon teachers embark on a walk, they first create their own guiding questions and a customized tool for capturing what they notice and wonder. On the morning we visited, the first-grade team went on a classroom walk to search for evidence of how materials may be organized to promote student independence as well as evidence of student voice. After returning from the walk, they partnered up to share and reflect on what they had observed and how they might be able to use a colleague’s idea in their own classrooms. Ninety minutes per week together as a team is just the start of the time teachers dedicate to

their collaborative work. They also have a second team meeting (which they requested) and common prep time four to five times per week; study groups (that have explored topics such as better understanding executive function, ADHD, and processing challenges); and access to the weekly Pupil Intervention Committee, where teachers can bring case studies of challenges they are facing in order to get more in-depth support. As Rachel (SPED teacher) noted: “There is great respect here for the amount of time teachers need to spend together. We respect each other as colleagues and are able to ask for what we need.” Megan (upper grades literacy coach) added, "Teaching is really hard and you want to do your best. It's pure fact that with common time, you can't help but get support from others and set up open communication. Schools need to be dedicated to making that happen." In contrast to Avalon, Beacon does have a traditional leadership structure. Principal Erika Gundersen has been at Beacon for more than two decades as a teacher, assistant principal and principal, and is clearly at the heart of this respectful, collaborative culture. “This is such hard work,” she told us. “Teachers realize that working together makes the job easier. The structures we have in place are meant to help teachers.” Because teachers at Beacon also co-create curriculum, they also use their weekly time to think about what is going well, which students are soaring, which are struggling, and how instruction might be better tailored in those cases. Speaking of curriculum, Rachel noted: “Because we create curriculum together, it’s a shared document that everyone is responsible for. If something isn’t working, there’s not one person who feels their work is being criticized. It was made by all of us.” Other school structures reinforce the respect the school holds for all stakeholders. (Dare we say the structures support Radically Reimagined Relationships?) The Leadership Team is made up of a rotating group of families (50%) and staff (50%), with members rotating off every two years. The team takes on some of the meaty questions of the school. What are our goals? What items should be in our comprehensive plan? What are families thinking and feeling? What needs to be worked on or changed? Beacon is also notable for how it provides special education services to the roughly 33% of students who qualify: all students are served in regular classrooms with push-in SPED services. There are no “resource rooms” at Beacon. Students with IEPs are placed in team taught classrooms that may also have one or more paraprofessionals in addition to the certified teachers. This commitment to full inclusion has made the school highly sought after by families. And while the staff is fully committed to their approach and to the philosophy that all students can learn at high levels, over the past few years some staff members were beginning to feel stressed and overwhelmed by the increasing needs of their students. Erika was concerned. “There were amazing teachers who were not feeling successful,” she said. In some buildings that kind of stress might build over time with few people feeling they could speak up or enact change. At Beacon, where staff feels respected and empowered, they faced the problem head-on, researching and instituting the RULER program (an approach developed at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence); over this past summer the staff together created a new staff charter that tackled questions such as: How do we want to feel when we are here? What do we need? What do we need to change? In addition to providing tools to staff, the RULER program is also helping students learn to better label, express, and regulate their emotions.

​Similar to Avalon, staff turnover is very low at Beacon. As Rachel told us, “We are all equals. Nobody is "the shining star"--we're all respected and appreciated. We’re all on the same page. We are the ones in charge of helping children succeed. What we have to say is important to one another.” It’s not hard to imagine people wanting to stay in such a place. Still, even with low turnover, new people are hired, and they are quickly brought into the team. As Megan told us, “We let them know we’re excited to have them and they were hired for a reason. And from the beginning we let people know that we are committed to feedback and self-improvement. Just because something is done a particular way doesn’t mean it can’t be changed and improved.”

Beacon’s results are hard to argue with. Their NYDOE school quality snapshot gives them across the board Excellent ratings on every measure from student achievement to strong family/community ties to trust (where 100% of the teachers said they trust the principal, 95% of teachers reported that they trust each other, and 97% of families responded that the school works hard to build relationships with them). Their test scores vastly outperform other schools in the district and the state, significantly outperforming many affluent schools.

But numbers alone can’t tell a story. We had to spend time in the building before we could be sure we had “the feeling.” When we did, we saw something special. We saw a school that uses time intentionally to create opportunities for collaboration. We saw teachers treated as valued professionals who were entrusted with essential tasks and whose voices had weight. We saw a commitment to shared responsibility and a Leadership Team structure that brought in the voices and perspectives of staff and families. We saw a commitment to continuous improvement as well as genuine care for the well-being of students and adults alike. In a culture like that, it’s easy to get “the feeling.” Images by Astra staff


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