A School Where The Students Hire Their Teachers

Students Hiring
Students at Tallgrass hold an all school meeting. Susie An / WBEZ
Students Hiring
Students at Tallgrass hold an all school meeting. Susie An / WBEZ

A School Where The Students Hire Their Teachers

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The Tallgrass Sudbury School in west suburban Riverside follows the Sudbury model where students and staff are equals.

Students pick their own curriculum and they have say over how the courses are taught. They also hold each other accountable by holding hearings in what’s called a judicial committee. But the students’ responsibilities go beyond curriculum and disciplinary matters. They also hire their own teachers. A process we witnessed.

About 20 students attend the school and range in age from five to 19. On a Friday afternoon in April, they gathered into a room with couches and chairs for an all-school meeting.

The school’s staffing committee interviewed one of the potential teachers for the coming academic year.

Matthew Harper, 15, chaired the meeting.

“New business, we will now invite Alexis Franklin to come to the front and take questions from school meeting members,” he said.

Some questions were what you might hear in a typical job interview.

“What is your worst quality? What is your best quality? Can you tell us about your experience with marketing? Is this school exciting to you?”

Some questions were not so typical…

“Can you tell me a fact about orangutans? Are you ok with letting us be free? Do you like to play outside a lot and play nature games?”

One of the older students, 14-year-old Elias Areyzaga, was looking for a candidate who had experience with kids of all ages. That semester, Elias took writing and Spanish, and he was looking for a candidate who could broaden the curriculum.

“Someone that knows more than one big subject so they can teach a variety of classes for those who are interested and someone who’s good with management and marketing. So they can handle both the teacher and financial side of being a staff member,” he said.

Areyzaga said he likes the responsibility of hiring staff because he wants to contribute to his school community.

Deena Habbal teaches at Tallgrass but she needed to win the students’ approval to keep her job because her contract was up for renewal. In addition to making new hires, the students also vote to renew the staff contracts each year.

“I feel like I did my job right this year, and I had a really good relationship with the kids,” she said.

But there was still some anxiety knowing she was up against new candidates.

As the school year came to an end, the kids held one final all-school meeting. The students voted in one new hire and renewed Habbal as a staff member. They also voted to ratify their contracts, including salary and benefits.

Areyzaga won’t be back to Tallgrass next year because he’s entering the public school system for the first time. But even still, he says, it was important for him to make the right picks.

“I don’t want to just pick up and go. I want to help form the future Tallgrass, so it can keep moving on because this school has been a big part of my life,” he said.

Habbal said even though the process is somewhat anxiety-inducing on her end, she says this direct democracy holds both the staff and students accountable.

“Having such big responsibilities like keeping the school running by hiring and firing staff, working on the budget, creating classes, stuff like that. It helps them become more independent,” she said.

She said the students will be better prepared for their adult lives.