Avalon: Not your typical school

No administrators, deeper learning, deeper leading

By Breanna Morsadi

“The only reason I can brag about Avalon is because I didn’t invent it,” Tim Quealy says during his interview with HEADRUSH. “I just came on and… if I left tomorrow, if any of us left tomorrow, nothing would change because it is the founding mission that holds this place together.”

Avalon isn’t your typical school, and Tim isn’t your typical teacher. During this candid conversation, Tim discusses what makes Avalon a force to be reckoned with in contemporary times as we face the impending education disruption of the future. Avalon has been “empowering students, exploring passions” since its launch in 2001, and is a teacher-powered, project-based learning charter who continually advocates for their students and teachers to “own their school.” And they do own Avalon, quite literally, and continue to break the mold of the traditional assembly-line school model with their future-forward learning landscape.

Here Tim helps us understand how Avalon came to be a true model in communal governance, self-empowered learning and nurturing students to pursue their passions.

Tim Quealy

So there are no administrators at Avalon. Say what? How does that even work?

We are teacher-powered. We have no administration at all. All decisions are made through consensus… People feel like they have a voice, and anything they want to see, they can make happen.

Does it ever get to be too much? I mean, having to handle administrative duties, logistics, the financial planning on top of teaching…

All teachers everywhere are working very hard. We are also working hard, we’re just working differently. We’ve gotten better over our almost 20 years in figuring out how to divvy up tasks — so not everyone is doing everything. There are a few people looking at the budget more closely than others, there are a few people that have developed some expertise in human resources, in staying in compliance, in technology coordination, in testing…

I’m familiar with the ins and outs of ed admin duties and it still sounds like a lot to take on…

As the conversation continues to grow nationally, that is one of the biggest resistances we encounter… [Teachers are] like, “Look, I’m already totally overworked. Yeah, this sounds cool in theory but I cannot imagine taking on another thing.”

So… what’s the solution?

So… you have to take things off your plate and spread the work around. We are much more decentralized than a traditional model and a lot more flexible. This flexibility also allows us to play to the strengths of our teaching staff… And we have a 97%, year-to-year, staff retention rate.

Wow, that is some serious retention success. What’s the secret?

One of the reasons we exist is to do project-based learning. That, as an advisor, really allows you to constantly learn and change and do new things. You know, I’m not responsible for teaching The Scarlet Letter for 200 juniors every fall — I advise on projects. Since the students can get the standards any way they want, I am also freed up as a classroom teacher to teach anything I want — because there is no curriculum map, there’s no order that things have to occur in… This frees up staff to follow student interest or their own interest in a way that keeps people here. The other part of our model is that we are teacher-powered or teacher-run, so we make all the decisions. They [teachers] feel like they have a voice. That dynamic really helps keep people here since that is a major frustration people have in the traditional model.

So what is an example of an independent, student-led project you were proud of?

I am always proud of our seniors. To graduate from Avalon, students have to complete a year-long, 300-hour project on a topic of their choosing. Working with both staff and community experts in their chosen fields, students spend the year diving deep into something they are passionate about, and then present their work to the community in the spring. The results of this autonomy are as diverse as they are impressive. Last year alone, senior projects had students building (writing and animating) fictional worlds, live-streaming video games for charity, building a sailboat, self-publishing novels, directing and performing an original play, building a Gaga-Pit (and teaching the middle school how to play), designing and creating a clothing line, recording an LP, coaching an all-girls robotics team, and creating a magazine around activism. This year — and I think it’s an Avalon first, but I’d have to ask around — a student even learned to fly, like an actual plane. Terrifying, and awesome. For most of the seniors (and the staff that supported them), these projects represent the pinnacle of their academic achievements at Avalon.

What external resistance do you face in advocating this alternative model?

I think the state continuously tries to create pegs we don’t fit in. Whether it is reporting every class the kids take, or any data requested, it is meant for a traditional program. The solution could very easily be to move towards a more traditional program. It would be much easier. Those are some of the things we fight.

So you’re fighting the state mandate?

What the state requires in terms of benchmarks or standards, the more detailed and onerous those get, the harder it is to do independent PBL in a way that is meaningful instead of just a giant checklist of things the kids do worksheets about. Currently, we look at almost 200 benchmarks the kids are meeting — maybe 250. That just creates a roadmap for every kid, defining everything they have to learn, and then there’s no room for that exploration that we try to push.

And how do you track graduate achievement or success?

It’s not easy data to pull. I don’t always know what to make of it. We produce an end of year report which shows the percentage of students who go to two year or four year college, or some sort of “other”… We had a student who got a job as a graphic designer but wouldn’t show up on this [data measurement]. He got a professional job right out of high school — how is that not a success story? I don’t know.

What’s the end goal?

Ultimately, parents look at this [data] for reassurance, and I can give it to them by spouting off some really fancy colleges our students go to… but we try to make sure that every kid that walks out of the door has a plan they are excited about. The end goal is to have a general sense of yourself, to know what you want to do in life, to know what skills really work for your learning style.

Avalon started off so early in the game… having implemented this [PBL] for so long…

We learned from other schools even before us. People have been doing this for a very long time… The technology, I mean HEADRUSH alone, allows for PBL to spread at a much bigger scale than before and just to track that work. I think the ideas have been there but in terms of scaling and moving it faster, I think the technology is now there in a way that can support it [PBL] really efficiently.

Any pieces of advice for schools switching over to PBL?

I think students really have to be at the center, you have to find ways to amplify their voices, and one of the most effective ways to do this is by amplifying the voices of those working directly with them, their teachers. No two communities will look the same or have the same needs — flexibility, constant reflection, and strong shared vision are all vital.

What is one thing the world needs to know about Avalon?

We just kind of make it a place where kids can explore who they are as themselves. We are continuously adapting and trying to get better. And we really value each member of our community.

— For more information about Avalon Charter School, please visit http://www.avalonschool.org/ or follow @AvalonSchoolMN

HEADRUSH facilitates project-based learning from START to FINISH allowing students to become self-empowered learners, teachers to focus on mentoring great work and schools to be future-ready. Our Heroes of PBL series highlights individuals and organizations that are brave enough to break the mold of traditional education and are making a difference in the world of project-based learning. Join our community as we enhance dialog to support deeper learning. For more, follow @headrushapp on Twitter or visit us at https://headrushlearning.com.