Prescriptions for improved LSCs

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Besides taking the political pulse of local school councils, Catalyst asked local leaders to review council structure and policy and suggest ways to make councils more effective partners in school improvement. The following is what they came up with.

Council structure: No need to rebuild

Majority opinion: The original model—six parents, two teachers, two community members, the principal and, at high schools, one student—can work better than it now does; there is no need to change it. In particular, reducing the number of parents would undercut the intent of the School Reform Act to make schools more integral to their communities.

Barbara Sizemore, DePaul University professor emerita, says that having parents on LSCs is a critical part of supporting parent participation in schools. Everyone in education agrees parent participation is crucial to improvement, she says, yet parents bear the brunt of council critiques. “If [CPS wants] parents to be involved, then parents should be the dominant force on LSCs,” she says.

Julie Woestehoff of Parents United for Responsible Education says her group might be open to a change so long as parents retain the majority. “We have thought about the principal not being a voting member, and maybe there should be one more teacher,” she says. “We’d fight if the parent majority were changed.”

A different view: Terry Mazany, senior program education officer at the Chicago Community Trust, suggests five parents or community members, five teachers and the principal. “It creates an interesting power dynamic,” he notes. “No one group has the automatic majority.” Having more teachers would also bring additional, needed educational expertise, he says.

Related ideas: Provide a staff member to keep minutes, collect data and reports and prepare meeting documents.

Reimburse members for expenses, such as travel, food and professional conference fees. Elect members to staggered terms. “An entire council can be replaced every two years, and that is unfair to the council and to the school,” says David Peterson of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association. With staggered terms, he notes, “half the council has experience at all times.” On the other hand, James Deanes, director of School and Community Relations, says the cost of mounting more elections would be prohibitive. “The cost would probably be mind-boggling,” he says.

Council powers:Keep keys to the kingdom

Majority opinion: In most cases, councils are able to handle the authority they’ve been legally granted: approving school improvement plans, spending discretionary budgets and hiring and evaluating principals. The latter has always been a flash point and remains that way today.

LSCs are effective in evaluating whether principals reach out to parents and community, says Anthony Bryk of the Consortium on Chicago School Research. “And we know that matters. If you don’t have positive development in that area, you are unlikely to see improvements in reading and math,” he says.

When LSCs get in trouble, however, it is often when disagreements with the principal get personal. DePaul University Professor Barbara Radner says on-going evaluation, rather than year-end, can ease tensions and improve communication.

A novel twist: Martin “Mike” Koldyke of the Golden Apple Foundation says LSCs at improving schools should keep their principal evaluation powers. But at bottom-tier schools that have chronically failed, central office should remove the principal.

To find a replacement, he suggests a blue-ribbon panel—”not a political panel, a group of really first-rate educators”—should give councils three high-quality nominees. The onus would be on central office to find outstanding candidates, “not reworked people,” he says.

Because finding talented principals is not easy, he says, the board should use this process in fewer than 10 schools a year. Once those principals are chosen, the councils and board should agree to a “no-meddling clause” so the newcomers can work freely for their entire terms.

A different view: Dolores Gonzalez, director of Leadership Initiative for Transformation (LIFT), a training program for new principals, says councils should be advisory on principal hiring and firing, as they were in the mid-1980s. Local school advisory councils then interviewed and ranked candidates, she says. That ranking was given to the district superintendent (now the regional education officer), who would make the final choice.

“I thought that kept the whole process kind of honest and above board,” she says.

Recalling even earlier history, Peterson of the principals’ association says, “I don’t think you ever want to go back to the old system. I got a principal’s job because of rank order on a test. The final decision was always the central office.”

Related ideas: Keep councils informed. Region 1 Education Officer Linda Pierzchalski, former principal of Bogan High School, says councils were sometimes helpful in reviewing budgets. Use up-to-date spending totals and be ready to explain them to LSC members, she adds.

Include LSCs in the School Improvement Plan (SIP) process. Some principals bar councils from meeting at the school outside of monthly LSC meetings, says Archon Fung, an assistant professor at Harvard University. Such a policy makes it difficult for LSCs to see the SIP in action, he says.

Create easy-to-use principal evaluation forms. The board’s form is too complicated, says James Deanes, who oversees LSC relations. A simpler form, developed by Leadership for Quality Education, is being piloted in 60 schools this year, and will be expanded throughout the system next fall.

Training: Pump it up

Majority opinion: Do more of it, and make it more relevant, especially in the areas of consensus building and conflict mediation. Even more important, add a teaching and instruction component and make it mandatory. Now, CPS training for councils covers only the basics, such as councils’ legal duties.

Parents do not have to become educational experts, says Warren Chapman, education program officer at the Joyce Foundation. But parents need to know what students need, and they need to ask educators tough questions to keep them honest. “That’s as important as picking a principal,” he says.

Hazel Stewart, a retired region education officer, says training quality is uneven. Trainers should be trained at the same place to ensure consistency, she insists. Principals should join them, too. “It’s important that they’re all hearing the same thing at the same time,” she says.

A different idea: Teachers get paid to take professional development, jurors get paid for their time, why not pay LSCs for the time they spend in training, says Mazany of the Chicago Community Trust. He also suggests expanding mandatory training to 40 hours; LSCs are now required to take 16 hours. “Not many of us have made household budget decisions for $1 million.”

Related ideas: Deliver training on the Internet. Bryk says CPS could use the money it saves on consultants to work one-on-one with councils that need extra support.

Develop training standards and align curriculum so that CPS trainers and outside groups are on the same page. Kenneth Wong, a former University of Chicago researcher, suggests hiring a third party to monitor the quality of LSC training.

Provide ongoing training throughout LSC members’ two-year terms, not just at the start of service. Wong, now at Vanderbilt University, says council members need ongoing training because they will face a number of unforeseen issues during their terms.

Candidate recruitment: Just a little respect

Majority opinion: Councils need to be recognized as a valuable resource for schools; many are worthy of praise for the hard work they do. Parents and community members should feel that they are joining an important and respected institution when they sit on an LSC, says Michael Klonsky of the Small Schools Workshop.

Right now, that’s not the case. “You’ve almost got to be a glutton for punishment to be on an LSC now— especially in a low-performing school,” he says. “Where is the praise?”

Exemplary LSCs were once recognized every year, but that practice disappeared in 1992.

This year, six councils won awards for excellent work when a consortium of council advocacy groups, school improvement organizations and local foundations revived the practice.

Joann Podkul, a teacher at Bowen High School, says councils could be recognized at a luncheon where they meet other LSC members and share ideas.

“If they see what they’re doing at the local level has an effect, they don’t feel like they are wasting their time when they should be at work or with their faculty,” she says.

Novel twists: Richard Laine, education policy director of the Illinois Business Roundtable, suggests that schools build a farm team of sorts, growing potential council members by recruiting prospective candidates to serve as tutors and school volunteers.

Phyllis Martin, executive director of the Financial Research and Advisory Committee (FRAC), suggests jumpstarting the business community with a United Way-style campaign for LSCs. “Companies would set a quota to get a certain number of employees … to join LSCs,” she says.

A different idea: John Ayers, executive director of LQE, favors paying LSC members in low-income communities. Head Start, which hires parents to work with children, offers such a model, he says. “It gets them engaged and positively involved. For parents who are really good with kids, this could be a way to pursue employment with the Chicago Public Schools.”

Related ideas: Open eligibility requirements so outside experts—lawyers, accountants, educators—who don’t live within the school’s attendance area can run for council seats.

Build public awareness. The Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) program steadily attracts volunteers by keeping public awareness high, Fung says. The city has a cable television station that could advertise council elections, he adds. “It’s been awhile since [CPS] has invested time, money and energy in getting people to run for LSC positions.”

Decrease the frequency of meetings. DePaul University Professor Barbara Radner says quarterly, rather than monthly, LSC meetings could accomplish two things. First, councils could operate similar to a board of directors and engage mostly in big-picture planning. Secondly, fewer meetings could stem high turnover rates by placing lower time demands on members. Factor in student mobility rates. High student mobility also means high parent mobility, and can affect council vacancy rates, says the Consortium’s Bryk.

Reported by Catalyst staff and written by Managing Editor Mario Ortiz. Comments may be emailed to editorial@catalyst-chicago.org