Local School Councils: ‘Catalysts for change’

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The first local school council members are sworn in at the University of Illinois at Chicago Pavilion.

File photo by Bill Stametz

The first local school council members are sworn in at the University of Illinois at Chicago Pavilion.

Of the all the reforms that have swept through Chicago Public Schools in the past 25 years, the creation of local school councils is one of the few that persists.

Although their authority has been curtailed over the years and not all new or struggling schools have them, the councils in many ways continue to deliver on the initial vision of allowing parents and community members to be catalysts for change at their schools.

Created by the Legislature in 1988, these elected bodies of parents, teachers and community members were assembled to connect school leaders and teachers with families and make schools accountable to the people who know them best.

“What we wanted was the full participation of parents in the decision making in schools: principal selection and curriculum design, and the overall monitoring of the quality of education,” says Sokoni Karanja, founder and president of Centers for New Horizons, a Bronzeville-based social service organization that was a leader in the creation of LSCs in 1988.

“In the first few years, they were very effective and we saw major turnarounds at some schools,” Karanja added. “And there are still diehard parents that maintain their commitment to the LSCs, although there has been continuous reductions in their power.”

For our 25th anniversary issue, Catalyst talked with parent leaders at two schools in two of the neighborhoods that have changed the most since 1990: Belmont Cragin and Englewood.

In Belmont Cragin on the Northwest Side, a mother who moved there as the neighborhood swelled with Hispanic families describes how her initial worries about getting involved have given way to concerted activism to get more classrooms to relieve overcrowding.

Across town in Englewood, an African-American neighborhood experiencing dramatic enrollment declines and school closures, another mother works alongside the principal to improve the school and convince other families that it is one worth attending.

Short-lived support for LSC elections

There was great enthusiasm around the first LSC elections, held in October 1989 — 17,000 people ran for 5,400 seats. But the enthusiasm quickly subsided as foundation support for campaigns and training dried up and CPS declined to step in. In the second election, held in 1991, there were just over 8,000 candidates, and in the most recent, 6,000.

Dion Miller Perez, a political consultant who sat on three LSCs in the 2000s and previously chaired the Chicago office of the now-defunct Cross-City Campaign for Urban School Reform, blames declining support from CPS leaders and foundations for the lower participation rates.

“There was a fickleness of funders supporting parental involvement in a grassroots way,” he says. “There used to be more foundation money for LSC training and parent involvement in general. That doesn’t exist anymore.”

In addition, in the early years, before the school system returned to unfettered mayoral control in 1995, the councils had support from Chicago’s business community, says Julie Woestehoff, who retired last year as executive director of the advocacy group Parents United for Responsible Education. Local companies used to encourage employees to run for seats but “you don’t hear about that anymore,” she added.

Hard to measure impact

The return of strong mayoral control so soon after LSCs came into existence makes it difficult to assess their impact on schools. However, research by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research shows a correlation.

“In that period just after decentralization, we do see improvements in a lot of schools,” says Consortium Director Elaine Allensworth.“A lot of schools did show improvements in student test scores, though it seemed to be related to the economic conditions in the community. … Then we start to see [scores] flatten out when mayoral control came in.”

Carlos Azcoitia, a former CPS principal, administrator and, most recently, School Board member, says that from his experience, councils are most effective when principals work to inform parents of upcoming decisions in a way that’s collaborative and trustful.

“The issue becomes, ‘Am I equipping councils and the community to know what students are supposed to learn and if they are learning it?’ And if they don’t learn it, what can the school do to make it happen?” says Azcoitia, who became a principal after he was chosen by Spry Elementary’s first-ever LSC in 1990.

But participation in a local school council that has power over principal selection and budget approval is not the only way for parents to have an impact on their schools.

Research by the Consortium, for example, has found that teachers at elementary schools are much more likely to stay on the job when there’s more parent participation such as picking up report cards, attending parent-teacher conferences, volunteering to help in the classroom, or raising money.

“When teachers feel like they’re working with parents as partners in educating students, that actually is the strongest predictor of the climate of safety and order in a school,” says Allensworth.