EdVisions Schools–Workplace and Educational Democracy

One of the great treats at a national worker coop conference is to learn about the incredible stories that exist. It is easy, sitting in our cooperatives at home, to imagine a world where we are the greatest thing since sliced bread. Then we come to a conference and get our mind blown–not just once, or twice, but several times.

One such event was learning of EdVisions. I had heard rumors of these folks. Located in the mystical Mississippi Valley of Southern Minnesota. They seemed like fairies from the days of Shakespeare’s England creating a magical place of learning and excitement. Needless to say, all we ever heard were the rumors of their existence. They are, after all, Charter Schools. Charter Schools, much like those fairies of Shakespeare are a dual edged sword as willing to spoil milk and ruin harvests as to help a poor Shepard. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the main stream media can’t figure out EdVisions as they don’t fit into the narrative of Charter Schools, School Reform, and Neo-liberalism.

As it was, I ended up sitting next to the Dee Grover Thomas, Principal of the flagship school: New Country Day School. She gave me a bit of a heads up for her speech. It was an incredible talk (I hope that this is an appropriate time to apologize for my grammar and spelling to Dee and my English teachers).

Ever the teacher, she asked the audience what they would like to study. Amazingly, the reply was “co-operatives!” she then asked if that would require history? yes. Writing? Yes. Math? yes. Art? yes. The point being that the core subjects can be worked into any field of study.

Rather than my telling you what they are about, here is their statement: “The belief is that teacher leadership is not about power, but about mobilizing the largely untapped attributes of teachers to strengthen student performance by working collaboratively in a shared capacity. Cooperatives are about working collaboratively and sharing in planning, action, and in results. Cooperatives are democratically owned and managed. The founders of EdVisions Cooperative believe in teacher voice and teacher empowerment. They also believe in modeling democratic action as a means toward teaching adolescents how to live in a democracy.”

Here is the problem that the market was dealing with:

  • Estimated 50% of teachers resign with in the first 5 years
  • Teaching is a non-promotion job only promotion to administration
  • Schools are losing 1 of 3 students to drop outs each yeas
  • Schools are seldom democratic
  • Teachers are not seen as professionals and little ed entrepreneurship has happened. Schools look and act the same today as they did 50 years ago.
  • She noted that The TSB kids, despite what they are doing, still have to raise their hand to go to the bathroom—that is messed up!

Minnesota New Country School as established in 1994.

  • Got rid of bells and classes or employees
  • 120 students 6-12
  • 40% special ed/35% low income

Project based learning—the ask the student what they are interested in (what turns them on) and then they apply to core principles (history, language, math, science, art)

School should be arranged like life—we don’t spend exactly 45 minutes on the math part of our jobs and then move to the writing part for another 45 minutes, so why do we run schools this way.

They chose to limit the school size to 120 students to keep a sense of community

Student ownership of their education with teachers as guides on the side.

It is more about learning than about teaching. They have to design their project and have to sit down with three adults and defend their project. At  the end, they sit down with three adults to show what they have learned. Sometimes, they have to unlearn before they can begin to learn.

EdVisions Cooperative

What would happen if teachers became owners instead of employees? Would they look at teaching differently? Eliminate the “us” vs. “them” in the battle between teachers and administration and parents.

Started with one school (MNCS) and 13 owners.  Today: 12 members schools and 3 affiliated non-profits, 150 members and 8.6 million budget, (the non-profits help to fund the school through different mechanisms).

Expected Behavior

  • Collaboration—build and sustain strong professional relationships
  • Civility—respect, dignity, kindness (train on restorative justice)
  • Communication—clear ideas
  • Co-creation—everyone plays a role
  • Accountability—every members assumes responsibility for the organization’s performance
  • Commitment to improvement and development.

Desired Ends

  • Take charge of professional lives (normal school dictates to the teachers)
  • Accountability for the learning program
  • Embrace change—technology, cell phones, communication.
  • Gain independence
  • Be leaders
  • Be able to contribute to each others’ professional development
  • Become Owners.

I’ll give Dee a lot of credit. She got some tough questions about labor unions*, the lack of sports programming, and others. Also note the number of special ed and lower income children. This isn’t a school designed (as mine was) to replace the aristocracy of corporate Vice-Presidents, this is about fundamentally changing the way we educate in this country.

It reminds of a certain Spanish priest who believed that the workers’ kids could be just as productive with their mind as the bosses’ kids. Those kids grew up to create Mondragon. The work of EdVest clearly makes the 5th Principle of Cooperatives as active as it can be. The have taken the cooperative economic model with an educational element and truly made it an educational model with an economic element.

If the Charter Schools were all like EdVisions, I would be on the front-line pushing for more. This is a fantastic model.

*Her response to the Union question? She said that the teachers are free to join the union, but don’t want to. Further, what she would like to see is for the union to start opening and running their own schools just like EdVision did.

About John McNamara

John spent 26 years with Union Cab of Madison Cooperative and currently helps develop co-ops in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration and Masters in Management: Co-operatives and Credit Unions from Saint Mary's University.
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