LSCs need to get political

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When 4,500 parents and community members were first elected to LSCs in 1989, some advocates envisioned their becoming a political force, one that, more than others, would put children first. As it turned out, these school reform pioneers had their hands full carving out roles at their schools, typically with little training or help. They had no time for more meetings or more assignments. Some LSC members do seek out their elected representatives, as the interviews in this issue’s Opinions section show. But there’s been little organized action. Now, as Managing Editor Veronica Anderson reports, LSC advocates are trying to change that, and that’s good news. It’s not that LSCs have cornered the market on what’s good for schools and kids. Rather, they have information and a point of view that should be considered as legislative decisions are made. They must wake up to the reality that their point of view won’t get considered unless they take responsibility for pushing it into the political mix. As Gershwin LSC member Cheryl Aaron recently told a dozen budding lobbyists: “Your local school council needs to learn how to assert its role because it has been complacent too long.”

The Consortium on Chicago School Research again has proved itself to be an essential partner in the complex business of turning around the city’s 550 schools. Over the summer, it produced a study by University of Chicago researcher Melissa Roderick on truancy and class-cutting during the 1995-96 school year. The study was a stunner that put a huge exclamation point on an earlier finding that high schools had gotten worse despite reform. For example: In their first semester, half the freshmen missed two or more weeks of instruction in at least one major subject, with class-cutting almost as much to blame as absenteeism. That’s important information for schools to have shoved in their faces and for the public to know. The researchers did more than crunch numbers, though; they also talked to enough kids to discern that reducing truancy requires more than simply getting tough. Kids who start to slip need help getting back on track in the classes they missed. (For individual school results, see the Consortium’s Web site: www.consortium-chicago.org.)

Now the Consortium is wrapping up a study of local school councils. A key finding: Contrary to the impression left by news reports, conflict is the exception, not the rule. That, too, is important for the public to know. When councils were first elected, some advocates envisioned them as saviors who would transform schools. That expectation also proved unrealistic. However, council members have made positive contributions; they remain a resource worth cultivating.

A continuing challenge is how to handle nasty conflicts that do erupt. Communities should be allowed time and given help to work through their own arguments. If the conflict persists, though, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas is right to conduct an educational crisis hearing. In this issue, Associate Editor Dan Weissmann writes about a school that has been sapped by controversy for a long time, Gale Community Academy. The trouble is, Vallas rushed into a situation—principal selection—where the law appears to be on the council’s side. So a messy situation got messier. James Deanes, the new director of School and Community Relations, acknowledges there’s enough blame to spread around. That acknowledgment is a good starting point for people of good will to come together to work out a peace treaty.