Avalon Charter School: A Conversation with Carrie Bakken

Q&A  05 January 2017
By Carrie Bakken

 

Avalon provides students the individualized support and opportunity to be the center of their learning experience.

Carrie Bakken
Program Coordinator, Teacher

Q. What originally attracted you to Avalon School? What has kept you there?

A. Quite honestly, I originally responded to a general ad in the newspaper about a new charter school starting in St. Paul. I knew nothing about the vision of the proposed school when I applied. But, after learning about the innovative model that included student-directed projects and collaborative teacher governance, I was hooked. I was hired to be part of a team of teachers that would collectively govern and design a student-centered, project-based school. The people, the model, and what it does for students is why I have stayed. In fact, Avalon retains 95%-100% of teachers annually for this very reason.

Q. What does Avalon provide that you (or your current learners) think is most attractive to incoming learners?

A. Students come to Avalon for a variety of reasons. Some come specifically for the student-centered, project-based learning model; some prioritize the safe inclusive community; and others seek the outstanding individualized special education support. 

At the heart of all these reasons is that Avalon provides students the individualized
support and opportunity to be the center of their learning experience.

Our students’ best work is not a score on a standardized test. Instead, they complete a 300-hour senior project presented to the community—supported by families, teachers, and community experts. For example, one of our students who has already completed several extensive projects in social and environmental justice decided her senior project will have a lasting impact on our school’s community. She is currently researching the Precious Plastic’s models to build a plastic recycling machine that will turn the school’s plastic waste into simple school supplies. This is one of many examples of the impressive projects that can happen when students are given the opportunity to own their work.

Q. What role do learners at Avalon play in developing the culture? What stories stick out to you the most?

A. We are a teacher-powered school, but I’d also describe us as student-powered. Students are trusted to learn valuable life lessons, including the idea that with power comes responsibility. They practice mediating conflict, solving problems, and creating new rules through our Avalon Student Congress. With support from their teachers,
students also determine their curriculum and decide how they will meet their graduation standards, whether through seminars or student-designed, independent projects.

One of Avalon’s many origin stories involves creating the Avalon Constitution. The first six-week seminar I taught at Avalon was a government class: Freedom and Responsibility. Many students in this seminar joined my next seminar, Writing the Avalon Constitution, in which they developed a framework for student governance at Avalon while learning about the U.S. government. They defined ownership and accountability and outlined Avalon’s three branches of government. They were a source of inspiration as we faced the challenges of putting our new teacher-powered model into action: we realized that if 14- and 15-year-olds could understand the powerful relationship between autonomy and accountability, then adults could, too.

 

After only a few months of his internship, we all noticed a significant change. He began to see his future.

Carrie Bakken
Program Coordinator, Teacher

Q. If you were to rewind the clock on your educational experience, how would a place like Avalon have changed how you experienced education?

A. School for me was a means to an end. I was not interested in what I was learning in high school but was motivated by the fact that I would graduate, go to college, and move away from home. However, when I finally had more choices in my schedule as a senior, I felt more academically engaged. I had time to write for the student newspaper, do art, and participate in electives that were interesting to me. In all my academic years, that was the first year I had even the slightest amount of choice.

Last spring, I witnessed the same system at work when observing and supporting teachers in another charter school that received a grant-funded opportunity. I noticed that even when teachers are excellent at what they do and design the most engaging curriculum imaginable, shuffling from class-to-class loses its academic luster for students. Even though I was impressed with the caliber of teaching, even I struggled to pay attention in each class. I think the way school is traditionally designed is in direct conflict with student engagement.

I know I would have cherished the opportunity to design my schedule and create in-depth student projects in the areas of my interest when I was in school. Who knows, maybe I never would have made the mistake to go to law school if I had the opportunity to explore my academic interests as a teenager.

Q. Is Avalon able to integrate the St. Paul community into the development of their education design? If so, what does that look like?

A. Yes, at the heart of creating meaningful student-directed projects is the integration of community resources. We have many community partners that support student projects, internships, workshops, theater programs, and host other experiences for students.

For example, one of my students struggled with self-direction, initiative, and perseverance, and we had trouble finding a way to consistently engage him.

Serendipitously, an alum happened to visit Avalon, and she told me about her new job working for a non-profit, PC’s for People. At this organization, employees and volunteers refurbish computers and sell them at a low cost to people who cannot afford new ones. Because this student had always enjoyed his computer projects, I encouraged him to seek an internship at PC’s for People. After only a few months of his internship, we all noticed a significant change. He began to see his future. He engaged in school, made plans, and saw himself becoming a professional working with computers.

Q. Are there other learning environments in the area that have taken interest in Avalon’s design?

A. Yes, we have hosted thousands of visitors since our inception over 15 years ago. This has included fellow teachers, union leaders, legislators, superintendents, foundations, and school reformers locally, nationally, and even from around the world. We regularly host visitors from Canada and Japan, for example.

Because of our experience with successfully implementing student-centered learning and a teacher-led governance model, Avalon offers technical support to schools and supports policy improvements. For example, Avalon currently provides another Minneapolis charter school support in student-centered learning and school improvement. Furthermore, in November 2015, a bipartisan team of state legislators visited Avalon to learn about our teacher governance model. During the 2016 legislative session, the Minnesota Legislature created a $500,000 grant program for new district teacher-governed schools.

Q. What does the near future look like for Avalon? What excites you about that future?

A. What excites me most about Avalon’s future is that the national conversation in education has shifted to include student-centered learning. This conversation is happening across sectors and bridges political divides. Within this dialogue, there is a unique opportunity for Avalon to share our model with other traditional districts, charters, and policy stakeholders. Avalon is also exploring growing the number of students at our site to offer our model to more students locally and expand opportunities for students in our building.

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