It wasn’t too long after Carrie Bakken JD ’98 received her law degree, that she tried something completely different and never looked back. In 2001, Carrie and a group of teachers founded the Avalon School, a Saint Paul charter school that is teacher-led and where students learn through self-directed, project-based study.
And while Carrie may not be practicing law, she is quick to note that her law degree prepared her well for the regulatory compliance part of the job as well as the day to day administrative operation of a grade six through 12, college prep public school. And her legal education has grounded her thoroughly in public policy.
As a leading practitioner and proponent of teacher-led schools, Carrie was selected in 2012 to become a member of the inaugural class of the Aspen Teacher Leader Fellows program, an Aspen Institute and Bellwether Education Partners program modeled after the Aspen Institute leadership programs.
In Aspen, Carrie joined a cohort of 20 teachers to attend four weeklong sessions over two years at the Aspen Institute in Colorado. “Spending time with this great network of teachers and the best facilitators from around the country changed my thinking about education as a whole,” said Carrie.
The goal of the two year program, centered on leadership, diversity and the challenges of public education and social change, is to strengthen the teaching profession and the capacity of educators to improve student achievement. Carrie noted that the experience sharpened her commitment to teacher-led schools and innovative learning. At its conclusion, fellows become part of the Aspen Global Leadership Network, made up of 1400 fellows in 42 countries dedicated to applying their creativity to a better world.
Carrie’s policy leadership has not gone unrecognized in Washington D.C, as well. In 2010, she was invited to participate in a meeting with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, educators and government officials where she advocated for teacher-led schools and project-based learning.
As everyone there will tell you, Avalon School is a special place, where, as described on its website, “middle school and high school are viewed not just as a time for preparing for college or a vocation, but as a vital and important component in each student’s life. Students must be meaningfully engaged in every class, project and endeavor.”
Avalon Students with Governor Dayton
In a recent article, Avalon’s unique program is described like this:
To understand…Avalon, it is necessary to hold three concepts in mind at the same time: First the idea of project-based learning: not just doing projects as a part of a class assignment but understanding schooling as a series of student-initiated projects. Second, the idea of a democratic organization in which students set a lot of the rules, resolve conflicts, and enforce many of the norms. And third, the idea of a teacher-run school in the utopian tradition of producers’ cooperatives.
At Avalon, the organization is flat, the style of operating is collaborative and decisions are made by consensus. Democracy rules at Avalon, for students, faculty and staff alike. But that doesn’t mean that Avalon isn’t accountable to the same grad standards and strict expectations of the Minnesota Department of Education. And it works. With 35 percent of its students qualifying for free and reduced lunches, and a large number of special education students, Avalon is a national model of innovative and effective education.
When asked how Avalon differs from other public schools, Carrie is quick to answer, “teacher autonomy.” Carrie observes that independent school district teachers are clamped down by a system of high bureaucratic accountability but no freedom to apply their skills, knowledge and instincts to the mix of students in their classes.
While not every teacher would choose to be part of a teacher-led school, Carrie believes that the best system of education would provide the option of teaching at a teacher-led school as part of a career ladder in any school district. Listening to teachers and giving greater autonomy to motivated, qualified teachers “is critical if you want to have high teacher retention,” Carrie said.
Carrie helped organize a conference in March at Hamline University, which brought representatives of unions, charter schools and superintendents together to explore the teacher-led school concept.
And although teachers unions have opposed the inclusion of charter schools in Minnesota’s public school system, Carrie notes that the concept of teacher-led schools are bridging the gap between charter schools and the unions. She has worked with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, which has become a charter school authorizer, known as “Guild Schools,” with plans to open two teacher-led charter schools in Minnesota next fall.
In 2012, Carrie was the recipient of a Minnesota WEM Outstanding Educator Award for Ethics in Education, which recognized educators who embody ethical behavior and promote ethical development for students through classroom or school activities policies or curriculum.
Carrie, who incidentally is the daughter of Hamline Law Professor Larry Bakken (himself a state and local policy expert and former Golden Valley mayor), and her husband Michael Durchslag have two children, ages 8 and 10. Michael is the director at P.E.A.S.E. Academy (which stands for Peers Enjoying a Sober Education) in Minneapolis, the oldest sober high school in the United States.