Do you want to show appreciation to teachers? This top school gives them more freedom

BOCA RATON, Fla. – When teachers at AD Henderson School, one of the highest-performing schools in Florida, are asked how they succeed, one answer is clear: They have autonomy.

According to a Pew Research Center survey of teachers last fall, most teachers nationwide report feeling stressed and overwhelmed at work. Declining job satisfaction over the past two decades has been accompanied by a decline in teachers’ sense of autonomy in the classroom, according to a recent study from Brown University and the University at Albany.

But at this South Florida school, principals allow their staff to be highly creative in the classroom—and it works.

A public school with 636 kindergarten and eighth-graders on the Florida Atlantic University campus, Henderson scored in the top 1% to 3% on the state’s most recent standardized tests in all subjects and grade levels, except for sixth-grade math, where students scored among the top 7%. In almost every subject, 60% or more of Henderson students achieve results well above the national average.

“We get to put a lot of ourselves into doing the activities we want to do in the classroom,” said Vanessa Stevenson, a middle school science teacher who is completing her third year at the school. She plans to start an equine medicine course next fall, even though the school doesn’t have stables – she thinks she’ll find a way.

“It’s a bit of trial and error because nothing is handed to you and told to do it like this. You just have to figure it out,” she said.

Joel Herbst, principal of Henderson High School and its sister school FAU, calls the faculty his “secret sauce” and argues that the school’s success can be duplicated anywhere – if the administration relinquishes some control.

When that happens, he said, teachers create practical programs that help students “not only demonstrate their understanding but also gain greater depth.”

“Give (teachers) the freedom to do what they do best, which is imparting knowledge and teaching beyond the textbook,” he said.

Madhu Narayanan, a professor of education at Portland State University who studies teacher autonomy, said independence is highly correlated with faculty morale and success. But autonomy must be paired with administrative support.

“It can’t be, ‘Here’s the classroom, here’s the textbook, see you in six months.’ These teachers have tremendous autonomy but feel lost,” he said.

Henderson emphasizes science, technology and mathematics and uses the arts and humanities to support these lessons. About 2,700 families participate each year in a drawing for 60 spots in Henderson’s kindergarten class and available spots in other classes. There is no screening – some children admitted to Henderson are prodigies, most are average learners and some have learning disabilities such as dyslexia.

The only change is to comply with a Florida law that requires student bodies at university-run “laboratory” schools to be racially, gender- and income-matched with the state’s demographic. Because families apply to participate, parent participation is high—a benefit that Herbst and his staff acknowledge.

Selected kindergarten teachers are tested months before their arrival so that any needs can be addressed immediately.

“Some of them come to read and some of them know five letters – and it’s not just reading, it’s all subjects,” said Lauren Robinson, the assistant director of the elementary school program. “We’re going to provide every opportunity to close these gaps before they get bigger, rather than waiting until a certain grade level and saying, ‘Now we’re going to try to close them.’ It’s day one.”

In Jenny O’Sullivan’s art and technology classroom, kindergarten-aged children learn the basics of computer programming by piloting a robot through a maze. Fourth and fifth graders make Earth Day videos. Students learn design by building cardboard arcade games like Skee-Ball for their classmates. Legos teach engineering.

Although her new classroom has the latest technology, she insists that such classes can be held anywhere if the teacher allows creativity.

“My grandmother is from Louisiana and there’s a (Cajun) saying: ‘Lagniappe,’ that certain something,” O’Sullivan said. “I will be the lagniappe in the student’s training. Could you do without it? Yes. But would you want that? NO.”

In small groups, sixth-graders in Amy Miramontes’ Medical Detectives class, dressed in white lab coats and safety goggles, solve a daily puzzle. They examined muscle strands of rabbits under a microscope, using safe chemicals to determine which neurological disease each animal had. They tested fake neurotoxins to find out what ailments their imaginary patients were suffering from.

Miramontes hopes the course will not only spark students’ interest in medicine, but also give them the knowledge they’ll need in two years when they take the state’s eighth-grade science test.

“They always learn by putting their hands on something,” Miramontes said. “If they mess up, that’s okay – we’ll start over. But then we learn a great life lesson: we have to be very hardworking.”

Marisha Valbrun, 12, took up Medical Detectives because she might want to become a doctor. She learned that while science is challenging, she can overcome obstacles by seeking help.

“I feel like if I just ask any person in this room for help, they can give you the right answer,” she said.

Even in a school where teachers exude enthusiasm, elementary art teacher Lindsey Wuest stands out—she can’t stand still as she describes how her lessons focus on science.

This afternoon, in their Science as Art class, Wuest and a guest artist show third-graders how to make bobblehead dolls from clay of endangered species — while also teaching the chemistry of why glazes change color in the kiln.

“Hopefully the students who love art can also develop a love for science,” she said. “Project-based learning stays with children longer.”

Third-grader Maximus Mallow said working on his leopard bobblehead taught him how the animal’s camouflage works.

“We have fun while creating things about science,” said the nine-year-old.

Henderson’s success is leading to grants – and nowhere is that better demonstrated than in the middle school drone program, which recently won a national competition in San Diego.

Henderson’s drone teams have a space to practice flying the 3-by-3-inch (75 millimeters), four-rotor devices over an obstacle course, as well as flight simulators donated by the local utility.

The drone program is a chance to compete while applying the physics and aviation skills learned in the classroom, said teacher James Nance. While expensive equipment is an advantage, Nance said, drone lessons can be done with little effort. At a previous school, he built a flying course out of PVC pipes and balloons.

Eighth-grader Anik Sahai pulls out his cell phone in Stevenson’s science classroom, which at Henderson usually means a trip to the office. But he is introducing an app he developed that uses the camera to diagnose diabetic retinopathy, an eye disease that is a leading cause of blindness worldwide. It took first place at the state middle school science fair and is being considered for commercial use.

The 14-year-old attributes his success to his years at Henderson, starting in the preschool program.

“The teachers here are great,” he said. “They have been trained on how to take us to the next level.”


Sharon Lurye contributed reporting from New Orleans.


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