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Want to show teachers appreciation? This top school gives them more freedom

Want to show teachers appreciation? This top school gives them more freedom
Art and technology teacher Jenny O'Sullivan, right, shows students a video they made, Monday, April 15, 2024, at A.D. Henderson School in Boca Raton, Fla. While many teachers nationally complain their districts dictate textbooks and course work, the South Florida school's administrators allow their staff high levels of classroom creativity...and it works. Credit: AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

When teachers at A.D. Henderson School, one of the top-performing schools in Florida, are asked how they succeed, one answer is universal: They have autonomy.

Nationally, most teachers report feeling stressed and overwhelmed at work, according to a Pew Research Center survey of teachers last fall. Waning job satisfaction over the last two decades has accompanied a decline in teachers' sense of autonomy in the classroom, according to a recent study out of Brown University and the University of Albany.

But at this South Florida school, administrators allow their staff high levels of classroom creativity—and it works.

A of 636 kindergartners to eighth graders on the campus of Florida Atlantic University, Henderson scored in the top 1% to 3% in every subject and grade level on the state's latest standardized tests, with the exception of sixth grade math, where students scored in the top 7%. In almost every subject, 60% or more of Henderson students score significantly above the state average.

"There is a lot of our own individual input allowed in doing the activities that we want to do in the classroom," said Vanessa Stevenson, a middle school science teacher finishing her third year at the school. She plans to start an equine medicine class next fall even though the school has no stables—she believes she will find a way.

"It's a bit of trial and error because there's nothing being handed to you saying, 'Do it this way.' You just have to figure it out," she said.

Joel Herbst, superintendent of Henderson and its sibling FAU High School, calls the faculty his "secret sauce" and argues the school's success can be duplicated anywhere—if administrators cede some control.

When that happens, he said, teachers create hands-on programs that help students "not only show their understanding, but gain more depth."

"Give (teachers) the freedom to do what they do best, which is to impart knowledge, to teach beyond the textbook," he said.

Portland State University education professor Madhu Narayanan, who studies teacher autonomy, said independence has a high correlation to faculty morale and success. But autonomy must be paired with administrative support.

"It can't be, 'Here is the classroom, here is the textbook, we'll see you in six months.' Those teachers have tremendous autonomy, but feel lost," he said.


Henderson emphasizes science, technology and math, using arts and humanities to help with those lessons. About 2,700 families enter a lottery each year for the 60 spots in Henderson's kindergarten class and openings in other grades. There is no screening—some children entering Henderson are prodigies, most are average learners and some have learning disabilities like dyslexia.

The only tweaking is to comply with a Florida law requiring the student population at university-run "laboratory" schools match state demographics for race, gender and income. Because families apply to attend, parental involvement is high—an advantage Herbst and his staff concede.

Selected kindergartners are tested months before arrival so any needs can be immediately addressed.

"Some of them come in reading and some know five letters—and it is not just reading, but all subjects," said Lauren Robinson, the elementary program's vice principal. "We are going to provide every opportunity to close those gaps before those gaps grow and grow, instead of waiting until a certain and saying, 'Now we'll try to close them.' It's Day One."

In Jenny O'Sullivan's art and technology classroom, kindergartners learn computer coding basics by steering a robot through a maze. Fourth and fifth graders make videos celebrating Earth Day. Students learn design by building cardboard arcade games like Skee-Ball for their classmates. Legos teach engineering.

While her new classroom has the latest technology, she insists such classes can be taught anywhere if the teacher is allowed creativity.

"My grandmother is from Louisiana and there's a (Cajun) saying: 'Lagniappe,' that little something extra," O'Sullivan said. "I get to be the lagniappe in (the student's) education. Could you do without it? Yes. But would you want to? No."

Working in while dressed in white lab coats and goggles, the sixth graders in Amy Miramontes' Medical Detectives class solve a mystery daily. They have examined strands of rabbit muscle under a microscope, using safe chemicals to determine what neurological disease each animal had. They have tested fake neurotoxins to determine which ailments afflicted their imaginary patients.

Want to show teachers appreciation? This top school gives them more freedom
Third grade teacher Megan Foster walks through her classroom as students take a break from a reading lesson to explore a computer animation of the planet Mars, at A.D. Henderson School in Boca Raton, Fla., Tuesday, April 16, 2024. When teachers at the K-8 public school, one of the top-performing schools in Florida, are asked how they succeed, one answer is universal: They have autonomy. Credit: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell

Miramontes hopes the class not only piques the students' interest in medicine, but implants knowledge needed in two years when they take the state's eighth-grade science test.

"They're always learning by having their hands on something," Miramontes said. "If they mess up, it's OK—we start over. But then we learn a great life lesson that we have to be very diligent."

Marisha Valbrun, 12, took Medical Detectives because she might want to be a doctor. She's learned that while science is challenging, by seeking assistance she can overcome obstacles.

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


Even at a school where teachers exude enthusiasm, elementary art teacher Lindsey Wuest stands out—she can't stand still while describing how her lessons center on science.

On this afternoon in her Science as Art class, Wuest and a visiting artist are showing third graders how to make clay bobblehead dolls of endangered species—while also teaching the chemistry of why glazes change color in the kiln.

"Hopefully those students who love art can also develop a love of science," she said. "Project-based learning sticks with the kids for longer."

Third grader Maximus Mallow said that by working on his leopard bobblehead, he learned how the animal's camouflage works.

"We have fun while we create stuff about science," the 9-year-old said.

Henderson's success leads to grants—and nowhere shows that better than the middle school's drone program, which recently won a national competition in San Diego.

Henderson's drone teams have a room to practice flying the 3-inch-by-3-inch (75 millimeter), four-rotor devices through an obstacle course, plus flight simulators donated by the local power company.

The drone program is a chance to compete while using the physics and aeronautics learned in the classroom, teacher James Nance said. While expensive equipment is a benefit, Nance said, drone classes can be taught on a shoestring. At a previous school, he made a flying course out of PVC pipe and balloons.

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

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

"The teachers here, they're amazing," he said. "They've been trained on how to get us to the next level."

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