Board bumps reform groups from LSC training

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For the past three years, the school system has relied largely on universities and reform and community organizations to conduct mandatory training for local school council (LSC) members. Now, those institutions and organizations are out, and City Colleges of Chicago are in. In a July 6 memo mailed to LSC members, James Deanes, director of the Office of School and Community Relations, said, “Only the Board of Education … is authorized to provide the training sessions required of LSC members…”

Training will be done by members of his staff and individuals selected by City Colleges, Deanes says. The change was needed, he says, because the quality of the training provided by the other groups “varied greatly and was thus unjust to the LSCs. Training must have accountability because the board wants everyone to be accountable.”

However, one of the leading outside trainers, Parents United for a Responsible Education (PURE), contends the move is an attempt by the administration to control LSCs and is aimed at PURE in particular. “I don’t think they want LSCs to have the authority they should under the law,” says Julie Woestehoff, PURE’s executive director. “We give them [LSCs] the tools to stand up to them.”

She also notes that the resource list in the board’s most recent LSC training manual omits four groups that had been included in 1996: PURE, the Chicago Association of Local School Councils, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law and the Lawyers’ School Reform Advisory Project. These are among the few local organizations that have publicly criticized the Reform Board and Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas; the groups also have challenged the board and administration in some principal selection cases.

PURE and Deanes have clashed repeatedly and traded barbs in print. In March, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Ray Coffey quoted Deanes as saying “so-called reform groups” are “trying to manipulate people” to fulfill their own agendas. In the column, Deanes singled out PURE as being “divisive.” Deanes has since softened his stance, saying only certain people within those groups are divisive.

Subsequently, PURE took a dig at Deanes in its own newsletter, juxtaposing his $80,000 salary and a comment he made to the Chicago Tribune in a February 1995 article: “When you bring in new people to the central office who make more money than principals and district superintendents, it sends the wrong message. … give some of those resources to the administrators who are on the front lines.” PURE also warned its readers that much of the information they receive from CPS and the Office of School and Community Relations “is wrong, is calculated to control LSCs.”

Deanes denies that the decision to drop outside trainers was aimed at any particular group. Some were doing well, he acknowledges, but others were doing quite poorly. At times, he says, LSCs trained by the latter had to suffer through delays caused by faulty guidance, and they were “furious.” Some communities are fine with the level of input that comes from other organizations,” he adds. “Others forcefully ask [us], ‘Why did you allow that to happen?'”

As for the resource list omission, Deanes says it was an “oversight” and that other groups that had done training, such as Bethel New Life and the Northwest Austin Coalition, were not included.

1995 mandate

Deanes also notes that PURE and other groups are still eligible to provide the supplemental training encouraged by Illinois state law. But Woestehoff says that’s not good enough. “Basic training is the heart of the LSCs, the foundation on which they’re built,” she insists.

Basic training includes lessons on the duties of an LSC, how to run a meeting and work together, how to assess the school’s improvement plan, understanding the budget and choosing a principal.

Supplemental lessons, which are not mandatory, might include school safety or anger management.

LSC training was mandated by the Illinois General Assembly in 1995, six years after the first LSC election. The law required three days of training within six months of taking office but left other details to the dean of the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Larry Braskamp, who was dean at the time, enlisted a number of reform groups and universities to write the curriculum materials and conduct most of the training.

A year later, after Braskamp had left his post, the law was amended to provide that training be done “at the direction of the Board” but in consultation with the council of Chicago area education deans. In addition, the revised law said the School Board “shall collaborate” with interested individuals and entities.

Before mailing his July 6 memo, Deanes checked with Michael Corrol, dean of education at Northeastern Illinois University and the outgoing chair of the deans’ council. Corrol says he assented to the decision because he did not believe it was dramatic enough to warrant a special meeting of the council. He adds that the full council will consider the issue at its September meeting, but he guesses that the council “will probably be in sync with the board.”

Corrol says he was concerned mainly that the training materials remain substantially the same and that the board would be able to offer enough sessions. He believes the board remains in compliance with the law’s collaboration requirement because outside groups helped develop the materials. “We’re still exposing the LSCs to different viewpoints,” he says.

Deanes says about 1,200 new LSC members still need to go through basic training, which takes about 12 hours. If they don’t complete the training by the end of the year, they will, by law, forfeit their posts.

Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, speculates that LSC training will suffer in a number of ways. “There will be fewer opportunities for the LSCs to complete their training, and much less opportunity for them to receive training tailored to their own particular situation. It seems to be very short-sighted, how the board is cutting itself off from a lot of experienced people, people who worked on this curriculum.”

While the board is offering training to groups of LSCs in each of the six school regions as well as at headquarters, reform organizations often conducted sessions for individual LSCs and addressed their specific circumstances.

In the past, the training provided by some board employees got poor reviews from LSC members. Woestehoff contends that even now some board trainers simply read the material aloud and tell LSC members to read the rest at home. “We’ve heard this complaint so many times it has to be real, it’s not just an urban legend,” she says, adding that LSCs should be allowed to choose the training that they find most helpful.

Albert Askamp, a newly elected community representative on the Ruggles LSC, began his training with PURE but finished it with the board after receiving Deanes’ announcement memo. He says the board’s session was adequate, but he preferred PURE’s. “The crowd was smaller, and there was more opportunity to ask questions and get personal answers to questions,” Askamp explains. “Both sessions were good, but the instruction of PURE was superior.”

Another LSC member contacted by Catalyst, gives a similar assessment. Okima Lewis, chair of the Parkside LSC, attended PURE training in 1996 and accompanied two colleagues to board training last spring. The board has improved it’s delivery so that PURE’s training now “doesn’t vary much from the board’s training,” she says. But she adds that PURE is in a position to discuss certain topics more objectively than the board is. She cites, for example, principal selection. “The board must support its employees, and LSCs are not employees,” she explains.

Lewis says she understands PURE’s anger over run-ins with the board. “This has been a very controversial year,” she notes. But she cautiously suggests that PURE would do more good for everyone by adopting a more detached stance. “It isn’t easy, but if your focus really is children first, you become neutral.”

Who can train

The Chicago Association of Local School Councils, another group that helped write the training manuals, reports that it has focused on supplemental training for the past two years, shaping lessons to meet the specific needs of individual councils. “We can do more good for LSCs this way,” says James Hammonds, advocacy director.

At press time, the new arrangement was unfolding. City Colleges will accept applications from people interested in becoming trainers, and preference will be given to those who have had experience in school reform, according to Estelle Jarrett, director of special services for CPS. The board is particularly anxious to get trainers who speak Spanish and Polish, she adds. Asked whether trainers from reform organizations would be eligible, Jarrett said, “People certified before can apply.”

Trainers will be trained and, as before, paid $50 an hour, she adds.

Kenneth Wong, a University of Chicago education professor who has studied the system’s governance, says the board’s new strategy is “reasonable” and provides for greater accountability. However, he recommends the creation of a broad-based advisory committee to monitor the quality of training. “When we have all these groups doing it, there’s no evaluation,” he says. “Now that the board has decided to have [systemwide accountability], we also need to see how effective these trainings are going to be.”

Wong notes a wide range of effectiveness among LSCs and says that good training could go a long way toward upgrading councils that aren’t functioning well.