Nobel laureate, U. of I. President behind LSC training law

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As State Rep. Mary Lou Cowlishaw approached the building in suburban Naperville where she keeps a legislative office, she was surprised to see a white-haired man in blue jeans struggling to get past the locked outer door. Suddenly she recognized the figure.

“Why, Leon,” she said, “why are you trying to break into my office?”

Leon Lederman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and former director of the Fermi National Accelerator Lab in nearby Batavia, was visiting his accountant on the sunny Saturday in March, and he turned around to greet Cowlishaw. “I’ll let you in on one condition,” said the legislator, “that when you’re finished with your accountant you come see me.”

Lederman did, and so was born a somewhat odd law intended to beef up training of local school council members.

The law directs the education dean of the University of Illinois at Chicago to administer the training and, for the first time, makes training mandatory; LSC members who do not go for training are to be removed from office. However, the law provides no money for the training and specifically exempts the Board of Education from having to pay for it.

Enactment of the law caught school reform groups unawares. And while many reformers are critical of the changes, they and other area education colleges are working in collaboration with UIC Dean of Education Larry Braskamp to implement the training.

The genesis of the law took several curious turns. It began with Cowlishaw’s concern about university participation in school reform, which she considered inadequate. “It wasn’t that they weren’t willing,” says Cowlishaw. “No one had given them a sense of direction.” Cowlishaw also felt that LSC training—suggested but not mandated since school reform went into effect in 1989—was inadequate, and she wanted to strengthen and require it. In January, after the Illinois Legislature became Republican-dominated, Cowlishaw and her colleagues suddenly had the power to try to rectify matters.

In March Cowlishaw and House Speaker Lee Daniels convened a meeting with Chicago university presidents and their deans of education on proposed changes in the reform law. Cowlishaw remembers that James Stuckel, then the UIC chancellor and now University of Illinois president, voiced a commitment to orchestrate LSC training—without additional funding. But Stuckel was nearly alone in his promise, and Cowlishaw exited the meeting depressed.

Within the hour, she ran into Lederman struggling with the door, an encounter she now terms “providential.”

Lederman agreed that LSC training was crucial. “You’re absolutely right about this,” he told Cowlishaw, “but you have to talk to people three levels down.” He directed Lourdes Monteagudo, a former Chicago principal who now directs the Teachers Academy for Mathematics and Science (a Lederman brainchild) to come up with some curriculum suggestions.

Meanwhile, Stuckel agreed that UIC, as part of its public mission in the Chicago area, would lead the training effort. “We always made it clear there would be no more state resources for this,” Cowlishaw reiterates.

According to Cowlishaw, Lederman wanted to require five days of training for LSC members. “Leon, give me a break, all these people [LSC members] have jobs,” Cowlishaw responded. Gov. Jim Edgar favored two days, she says. A compromise of three days was struck.

Little discussion

For the most part, organizations that have provided most of the training to date weren’t consulted. Lee Daniels had assembled a task force on education, but it included only a smattering of Chicago school reform groups, and the training changes received only cursory mention. “This wasn’t really discussed that much in terms of detail,” reports Jessica Clarke, education director of the Chicago Urban League and a task force member.

The new training law, passed on May 24 as part of a sweeping revision of the School Reform Act, states that schooling for new council members “shall be provided through Chicago-area universities” under the direction of the education dean at UIC. The three days of training are to deal with “legal requirements, role differentiation, responsibilities and authorities and improving student achievement”—topic headings taken from a memo Monteagudo sent to Cowlishaw on April 7.

LSC members who fail to get training within six months will lose their seats, with enforcement responsibility falling to the School Board.

The reform community itself had toyed with mandating training. An ad-hoc legislative task force recommended an obligatory eight hours of training in 1994, but when the suggestion was aired before the Senate Education Committee the legislators took pause at the sanction of removal from office. “They were elected officials, too, and oh, they thought, now here’s a pretty serious sanction,” recalls Diana Nelson, a co-convener of the task force. A bill that became law last January—now superseded—had watered-down language that only encouraged the eight hours.

Some reform leaders are troubled by the new removal provision. “That’s a rather excessive penalty for a volunteer,” thinks Julie Woestehoff, executive director of the reform group PURE. “Once someone gets elected to a position, I don’t know that it’s right to kick him off, for whatever reason, and disenfranchise all those who voted for him,” says Sheila Castillo, executive director of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils.

Given the tight-fisted attitude of the Republican-controlled legislature, the lack of funding for the training surprises no one. There is, however, some skepticism about the heightened role given the education deans. “They may know about education, but not about the school as an organism,” says Joan Jeter Slay, associate director of Designs for Change.

Woestehoff is blunter. “Why have the universities been given this responsibility? They are seen as elitist here, whereas training should be a grassroots process.”

“Look, we needed to make someone responsible,” responds Cowlishaw. “Who exactly is going to deliver this training—and how and where—is entirely up to the council of deans.”

To that effect Braskamp, starting in mid-June, has convened the Coalition for Local School Council Training, which includes representatives from the Chicago Teachers Union, reform groups, and the education departments of UIC, Chicago State, DePaul, Loyola and Roosevelt universities. The Board of Education’s participation is coming through Olivia Watkins, now in charge of professional development.

One prevailing question is who will underwrite the training. Early on, Woestehoff and Zarina O’Hagin, director of the Lawyers’ School Reform Advisory Project, were adamant that schools not be forced to spend state Chapter 1 funds. “UIC will underwrite some of this,” says Braskamp, though Woestehoff presumes the bulk of training will fall to reform groups. The university will certainly donate office space, Braskamp says, and officials will forage for additional support from corporations and foundations.

Braskamp also expresses a desire to employ—and build on—training that’s already being done. PURE, for instance, conducted 200 workshops for LSC members during the last school year, managing to reach 2,500 people from 125 schools. The former Office of Reform made presentations at 175 schools last school year, and orchestrated two citywide conferences; the last one, held in May, drew 600 LSC members. Even so, Woestehoff estimates, only 30 percent of sitting LSC representatives have been trained “much beyond the basics.”

In July the coalition divided into four subcommittees: collaboration, or policy-making; content, or curriculum; logistics; and evaluation. Braskamp says he is hoping for training in the fall for LSC members appointed to fill vacancies, with full-scale classes to be operational when regularly scheduled council elections take place next April. “But this a massive task, to train 6,000 people at 550 sites. There are going to be administrative problems. I hope people are patient with us.”