NEWARK, N.J. — Shortly after landing at Malcolm X Shabazz High School as a Teach for America recruit, Dominique D. Lee grew disgusted with a system that produced ninth graders who could not name the seven continents or the governor of their state. He started wondering: What if I were in charge?
Three years later, Lee, at just 25, is getting a chance to find out. Today, Lee and five other teachers — all veterans of Teach for America, a corps of college graduates who undergo five weeks of training and make a two-year commitment to teaching — are running a public school here with 650 children from kindergarten through eighth grade.
As the doors opened Thursday at Brick Avon Avenue Academy, they welcomed students not as novice teachers following orders from the central office but as "teacher-leaders."
"This is a fantasy," Lee said. "It’s six passionate people who came together and said: ‘Enough is enough.’ We’re just tired of seeing failure."
The Newark teachers are part of a growing experiment around the country to allow teachers to step up from the classroom and lead efforts to turn around struggling urban school systems. Brick Avon is one of the first teacher-run schools in the New York region, joining a charter school in Brooklyn started in 2005 by the United Federation of Teachers.
Others have opened in Boston, Denver, Detroit and Los Angeles.
At Brick Avon, the principal, Charity Haygood, who calls herself the "principal teacher," teaches every day, as do the two vice principals; Haygood started her career in Teach for America and eventually became vice principal for five years at another school.
While they are in charge of disciplining and evaluating staff members, they plan to defer all decisions about curriculum, policies, hiring and the budget to a governance committee made up largely of teachers elected by colleagues.
The school has 38 teachers, including Lee, Haygood and the other four Teach for America veterans who took it over.
Teachers have more say over what they teach, and starting next year they will have more time to work with children when they introduce a longer day.
To an unusual degree, they are shown they matter, as with the air fresheners left in the faculty lounge and bathrooms, or the new air-conditioner that will be raffled off at the end of the month to a teacher with perfect attendance.
Driving the establishment of teacher-run schools is the idea that teachers who have a sense of ownership of their schools will be happier and more motivated.
But some educators and parents question whether such schools are the solution for urban districts, which typically have large concentrations of poor students and struggle with low test scores and discipline problems.
They say that most teachers have neither the time nor the expertise to deal with the inner workings of a school, like paying bills, conducting fire drills and refereeing faculty disputes.
"Ever try to plan a vacation with a large extended family? That’s what it’s going to be like," said Michael J. Petrilli, a vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy group in Washington. "It’s a good idea in theory, but there are just a handful of teachers who can pull it off."
On the steps of Brick Avon last week, Lisa James, 26, a home health aide with a daughter in second grade, said she worried that teachers doubling as administrators would lose their focus.
"Teachers should be teachers," she said.
Teacher-run schools are spreading as many districts seek new ways to raise student achievement and compete more effectively against charter schools.
This year, Los Angeles has turned over 29 city schoolsto groups of local teachers who worked with parents, administrators and union leaders to beat out established charter operators like Green Dot Public Schools.
Detroit is opening an elementary school without a principal; its motto is "Where teachers lead, children succeed."
Another school with no principal was started last year by the Boston Teachers Union, with teachers ordering supplies, giving feedback to one another and deciding whose hours to reduce to save money.
"It’s really a collaborative environment," said Betsy Drinan, 57, a teacher-leader at the Boston school. "I haven’t worked in schools before where they come to you and say ‘What do you want’ and ‘What do you need?"’
While teacher-run schools started as early as the mid-1990s, most had fewer than 350 students or were charter schools, including some teacher-owned cooperatives in Minnesota.
Tim McDonald, an associate with Education Evolving, a policy group in St. Paul that supports teacher-led schools, said studies showed that when teachers were given control — much like doctors or lawyers running their own practices — schools had higher morale, less turnover, more efficient decision-making and greater motivation to improve.
Still, McDonald was skeptical that a truly collaborative model could succeed widely in school districts, unless it was somehow freed from the traditional bureaucracy.
"You’re trying to run an upside-down pyramid in a pyramid structure," he said. "There is so much momentum against being completely different in most districts."
James H. Lytle, an education professor at the University of Pennsylvania who teaches a course on urban school reform to Teach for America teachers, said the test of school leaders was whether they could make a school work smoothly.
Teachers, he said, "want the textbooks to be there and the students to come on time."
"The question is whether teachers have the patience to do the ‘adminis-trivia,"’ said Lytle, a former principal and superintendent in Philadelphia and Trenton.
The union-run UFT Charter School in East New York, Brooklyn, has run into problems. Two principals resigned after clashing with teachers, and recent test scores have been disappointing; only 22 percent of last year’s eighth graders passed state tests in English and 13 percent in math, compared with citywide rates of 37.5 percent in English and 46.3 percent in math.
Here in Newark, Lee and his partners — Haygood; Chris Perpich, who is one of the vice principals; Bernadette Scott; Princess Williams; and Mindy Weidman — worked at night and on weekends for 18 months to develop the blueprint for Brick, which is an acronym for Building Responsible Intelligent Creative Kids.
The school has a global focus, with plans to seek approval as an International Baccalaureate school, and its requirements include Spanish and Mandarin.
The group asked Newark district officials for a school to run in the South Ward, a poor, crime-ridden section of the city, because, as Lee put it, "you go where the need is greatest."
They were given the former Avon Avenue School. In 2009, only 38 percent of Avon’s eighth graders passed state tests in language arts and 14 percent in math, compared with 82.5 percent and 71.8 percent statewide.
Lee, soft-spoken and unflappable, raced through the school last week, handing out class lists to teachers, security guards, even a surprised custodian. Later, he was wiping down cafeteria tables for lunch.
"It has to get done, so teachers can focus on teaching," said Lee, who serves as Brick Avon’s operations manager as well as executive director of Brick, but also will be teaching in the school.
The teachers are raising money — $125,000 so far — to pay for extras like teacher training and an after-school program for students. They have tried to build good will in the community by holding a barbecue in the schoolyard, stopping by block parties and knocking on families’ doors.
The day before classes started, Haygood, the principal, stood before the other 37 teachers in the auditorium, two-thirds of whom had previously taught at Avon. She read from the book "If You Don’t Feed the Teachers, They Eat the Students."
Then she shared her vision of a collaborative teacher-run school and asked them to demonstrate how they planned to take charge. Those without enough enthusiasm, she joked, would be required to get Brick tattooed on their backs.
Some teachers sashayed across the floor, while others cheered B-R-I-C-K. A group that included the music teacher broke into song. One teacher even slid into a split.
Afterward, Haygood asked them to jot down their feelings about the coming year.
Ed Crisafulli, 57, a science teacher working for his eighth principal at Avon, wrote down "hopeful" and then "finally."
"We finally have someone who is a teacher," he said, "someone who understands teachers from the smallest little thing to the biggest."