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Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy starts school
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Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy starts school

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Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy (FALA) welcomed students to its classrooms on Wednesday for the school’s 25th year.

Director of students Alex Cohen Gray had presented an update on their 2020-23 strategic plan at FALA’s July board meeting, going over a number of big-picture goals for the school.

The school’s priorities, Gray said, were “data-driven instruction” and better communicating the school’s plans and practices to its families.

“Cultivating creativity and critical inquiry are these two big pillars that are part of our habits of heart and mind,” Gray said.

When getting input on a new mission statement, the school realized these were the main qualities that drew people to FALA. Gray said when they had surveyed students, families, faculty and alumni, they found the two often overlapped.

Her presentation was meant to give an update on the state of the school, using the strategic plan to measure progress. Executive director Eli Cohen said they were working on health metrics to present to the board -- concrete information that ties into the strategic plan to make it easier to evaluate whether they are meeting goals.

“We realized that we do everything already, we just haven't been using the buzzwords,” said Audrey Baird, a high school science teacher and one of three curriculum and instruction leads for the school. “We haven't been calling ourselves what we've been working as this whole time.”

One thing that’s new this year is FALA’s leadership structure. FALA had started making changes over the last year, but this fall will be the first time the structure is fully in place while students are in class.

Cohen called it a “distributed leadership model,” implemented because “we really want to make decisions at the level that are closer to students.”

He and Baird said leaders at the school had realized the former leadership structure “was not particularly sustainable,” causing FALA to “[run] through executive directors and deans with some regularity.” The amount of work those positions required was too much for one person, it said

So FALA started looking at other models and how nearby schools approached leadership. The school wanted to involve staff who work directly with students, because “essentially everything that we do always comes back to students,” Baird said.

“Whatever it is that we’re making decisions about or trying to move towards is always to benefit our students at the end of the day,” Baird added.

“It’s strange to want to try and foster students to think different ways and lead different ways [when] were still using an older structure that may or may not work,” Cohen said. “We should model what we also want to teach. So it was a combination of the need, but also let's try and do things differently and see how we can also how we make decisions and how we can also impart that to students.”

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The process involved a visioning committee, professional development conferences and training. FALA leaders wanted to use their resources to make sure the changes were seen in action and not just in title.

“What we came to realize was a lot of the things that we already do basically fall under the umbrella of a teacher-powered school,” Baird said.

FALA now has three directors and three curriculum and instruction leads who are also teachers at the school.

The new structure has mostly been implemented over the past year. After a few iterations, FALA leaders have been putting the current model in place over the spring and summer. The curriculum and instruction leads started over the summer, said Cohen, and “we’ll see how that plays out this year.”

Gray said they would be using a combination of metrics to assess the leadership structure throughout the school year, including surveys, staff and student feedback, along with more concrete data such as enrollment and attrition. The hope is to be able to respond as issues come up.

Cohen said making changes during a pandemic was uncertain -- either “the stupidest thing we can do or the greatest thing we can do.” He said the pandemic made the work more difficult while also giving “the flexibility to be a little more creative.”

“Even during the pandemic we wanted to continue to engage students on a broader level, not just what you are actually learning in class,” Cohen said.

He listed a monthly social justice symposium and FALA’s environmental coalition as examples. Being a smaller school also helped them move between instructional models and adapt more generally.

COVID-19 still has an impact on this school year -- FALA’s board approved new protocols in a meeting Monday. It's also in the process of applying for ESSER II funding. Cohen said COVID-relief funds meant the school could hire an interventionist and a full-time mental health counselor for the current school year.

Going forward, Cohen said they wanted to “focus on some of the things that we weren’t able to accomplish in this past year.”

He specifically listed enrollment, saying kids tend to leave the school after eighth and 10th grades, finances and becoming a “data-informed school” as priorities for the coming year.

Gray agreed.

“I think a broad priority is to redefine [and] reinvigorate the image of FALA in the Flagstaff community," Gray said. "We need to be a place where people come, where they feel inspired to come... . There’s a lot of school choice in this town and a priority of mine would be to make FALA top of that list.”

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