Did community groups have an impact?

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In early March, pledges of $216,000 in private money were made to 27 community-based organizations (CBO) to recruit and train candidates for this year’s local school council elections.

However, a computer analysis conducted for Catalyst shows “only a small relationship between the presence of a CBO and high candidate totals,” reports Jim Lewis, vice president for research at the Chicago Urban League, who conducted the analysis.

According to the CBOs, however, both the money and their work made a critical difference for the schools they targeted. And school reform advocates contend that the money was too little and came too late to make a dramatic difference.

“The groups didn’t actually get funding until a month before the [filing] deadline,” notes Don Moore, executive director of Designs for Change. “The board printed several thousand posters, but they weren’t available until a week before the deadline, so there wasn’t any way people could make use of them.”

However, Carlos Azcoitia, who spearheaded the School Board’s effort to attract voters and candidates, is upbeat about the campaign as a whole. “We wanted to exceed the totals from 1993, and we did that,” he says. “Then, the issue becomes: how substantial [were the gains]? We’re going to learn from all this experience, and in two years it’ll be even better.”

From lists supplied by the School Board and the funded organizations, Catalyst identified 191 schools that received help from one or more CBOs. The number of parent candidates at those schools averaged 8.9, compared to an average of 7.9 for non-targeted schools, according to the Urban League analysis. However, that one-candidate difference shrank to insignificance when schools’ enrollments and attendance rates were taken into account.

CBO assistance did make a slight difference in total parent candidates at three kinds of schools: those with exceptionally high poverty rates, especially low attendance rates or especially low academic achievement—in other words, the schools at greatest risk of low LSC participation. In the races for community representatives, there was practically no difference citywide between schools that got CBO help and those that didn’t.

“The single most striking characteristic of candidate recruitment was the relatively uniform level of candidate response across the city,” says Lewis.

Citywide, none of the factors in his analysis—enrollment, race, poverty, attendance, academic achievement, region and CBO participation—explained differences in the number of candidates recruited at individual schools. The exceptions to this were the strong association of CBOs and higher community candidate recruitment on the Far Southwest Side and the north lakefront.

However, some organizations did especially well at some schools. For example, Aspira’s efforts brought out at least two parents and community members for every seat at Cameron and Avondale elementary schools.

Were it not for CBOs, some schools would not have had enough candidates to fill all slots. Before Pilsen Neighbors started working with 10 schools on the Near Southwest Side, “They barely had enough candidates, or there weren’t any community members,” says executive director Juan Soto. In the end, all 10 had full rosters, and eight had contested races.

Some organizations say that outside money is crucial in low-income areas, where parents can’t afford to have flyers designed and printed. Pilsen Neighbors used part of its $12,500 in grants to keep its office open 12 hours a day during election week, and to offer free computer and copier services to candidates.

Patricia Butler of the Northwest Austin Council notes that many low-income parents don’t want to sacrifice jobs at local schools, which typically pay $5 an hour, to run for the LSC. “If LSCs had been offered a stipend, I believe you would have had a lot more candidates.”

Neither the board nor the community organizations expected participation to rebound to the levels of 1989, the first election. “It’s not unique anymore, and people are realizing that this means work,” observes Juan Rangel, executive director of the United Neighborhood Organization.

And a parade of newspaper stories about troubled LSCs did not help.

“A lot of people, when you mention the LCS to them, they were afraid to run because of the bad press,” agrees Butler. Austin High, which is on remediation, has been prominent in the news.

The following is a run-down on private funds granted for the 1996 election:

The School Reform Board reported distributing a total of $121,000 to 17 organizations; most received $5,000 to $7,000. The sources of the board grants were $100,000 from AT&T, $10,000 from LaSalle National Corp., $10,000 from Mattel and $1,000 from Paul Vallas, the school system’s chief executive officer.

The Chicago Annenberg Challenge gave $5,000 each to 23 CBOs, including some funded through the board, and $5,000 each to the Chicago Association of Local School Councils (CALSC) and Leadership for Quality Education (LQE), the latter to administer the project.