Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Teacher Turns 'Crazy Idea' Into New School

Condensed from an article by Thom Patterson posted on CNN.com, September 9, 2009

"I have a crazy idea": Those five words changed a simple meeting of school officials into the realization of Kim Ursetta's dream.

Ursetta, then president of a local teachers' union, blurted out those words 18 months ago during a meeting in the office of Denver, Colorado's, schools superintendent.

The other officials in the room leaned in as Ursetta leaped into a sales pitch that would turn an ordinary day into a highlight of her career.

"I want to start a new kind of school," she said, a union-sponsored public school led by teachers, not a principal.

"I started talking about 21st century skills and wanting to prepare our kids in math and science, especially our low-income and ethnic minority students," Ursetta said. "We've been doing schools the same way in this nation for 150 years, so if we don't step up, then nothing is going to change."

Superintendent Michael Bennet -- now the state's freshman U.S. senator -- did not say no to the idea, and Ursetta walked out the door "excited" and "shocked."

She immediately started "pulling together a group of teachers to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and ask how you would do a school differently."

Three weeks ago, Ursetta's dream became a reality, as Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy opened its doors to 142 kindergartners and first- and second-grade students in Denver's mostly low-income, largely Hispanic Athmar Park neighborhood.

A board-certified, 16-year teaching veteran, Ursetta, 38, believes the lack of teacher flexibility ranks among the top barriers blocking the nation's children from receiving the best education possible.

As a teacher at traditional schools, Ursetta said she and her colleagues weren't allowed to change the order of their lessons.

Two of the school's 12 teachers take on administrative duties as "lead teachers," performing the traditional role of a principal.

Although they follow school board-approved curriculum and standards, instructors can easily rearrange lessons to "make better sense for the kids" -- making better connections between different subject matter, Ursetta said.

Sometimes, for example, it makes sense to group Ursetta's kindergarten students with first-graders working on the same subject.

"You normally would have to ask permission to do that," she said. "But here, we just do it. We're able to try different things to teach them instead of just following a script."

The lack of quality school leadership is a big reason that experienced teachers leave their schools, Ursetta said. "Studies show when you take accomplished teachers and allow them to have a leadership role, that's when they see the most success. Scores just soar. That's how we're focused here."

No comments: