Two schools, two councils, one dynamic personality

Johnson, 46, is married and has five children—three sons, ages 24, 11 and 8, and two daughters, 17 and 21. The energetic Austin resident chairs two local school councils, Spencer Elementary and Westinghouse High School—she has been on the council at Westinghouse for two years, Spencer for four. Johnson also works full time as an organizer for Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI), a group that trains leaders in low-income neighborhoods.

Growing up

Deborah Lynch, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, says this year the union is encouraging teachers to run for council seats but that it is rethinking its stance on councils, with an eye to boosting teacher leadership in schools. A CTU poll of 5,000 teachers last fall found that nearly half of those surveyed were dissatisfied with their schools’ councils.

Catalyst survey results

Catalyst conducted a survey of 70 local school council members from a representative sample of 20 elementary schools and five high schools across the city.

Participants were asked for their views on LSC structure, mandatory training and principal selection and evaluation. We also asked for their ideas on how to improve schools and boost interest in LSC elections. Of those who responded:

36 were parents

19 were teachers

12 were community members

3 were principals

Note: Some tallies do not add up to 100% due to non-responses.

Ms. Barry’s classroom library sets the pace for CPS

Stacked in book trees, spread in wicker baskets and plastic crates, standing on tables and easels, more than 1,000 books sprawl across the west wall of his classroom, Room 104 in Jungman Elementary in Pilsen. Facing the door, the enormous classroom library calls to all who enter.

Comings and goings

LAWSUIT The board filed a lawsuit Feb. 15 to compel the state to contribute more money to the Chicago teachers pension fund. Under current state law, contributions to pension funds for downstate and suburban teachers are paid through the Teachers Retirement System; Chicago teacher pensions are paid out of a separate fund. Officials of the board and the Chicago Teachers Union contend that the system shortchanges CPS teachers.

Going home with

The 18 1st-graders in attendance settle into chairs they’ve pulled into the classroom library. Barry takes a seat on a desk, facing them, and holds up “The Gingerbread Baby.”

Being chosen for “read aloud” in Room 104 at Jungman Elementary School is a little like winning a Pulitzer Prize: A book’s got to be good to get it, and getting it brings an avalanche of readers. Barry chose “The Gingerbread Baby” for its challenging vocabulary, masterful illustrations and well-told story. She’s sure it will be a hit.

LSCs need commitment from the top

However, the problems that individual councils may have are no different than those experienced by school boards, condominium boards and other governance bodies. “Individuals in groups [charged with making decisions] operate in pretty much the same way,” author Jasmine Martirossian, told Catalyst . While the horror stories get widespread attention, a 1997 survey of LSCs by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that more than half of councils had been able to carry out their duties with little or no extra support.

Principal turns to ‘authentic’ lessons, new teachers

Large numbers of students were arriving late for school and hanging outside the building. Spivey ordered them to come inside. When they refused, he locked them out.

Students went home and told their parents, who called the media. In front of television cameras, Spivey explained why he locked the doors, and said he would stick by his decision.

Five ways LSCs can fail— and how to fix them

“Individuals in groups [charged with making decisions] operate in pretty much the same way,” says Jasmine Martirossian, author of “Decision Making in Communities: Why groups of smart people sometimes make bad decisions.” Condominium boards, juries, blue ribbon panels and school boards can also go astray and fail to fulfill their missions. Voices are raised, dissent is muffled and in extreme cases, threats are made. Decisions, however, are not made effectively.

Prescriptions for improved LSCs

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.

Candidate recruitment off to (typically) slow start

Low candidate sign-ups, though, are not unusual and the board has extended deadlines in the last two elections. The number of people running for LSCs has declined each election since the first one in 1989, when 17,256 candidates ran. When elections were last held two years ago, 7,095 people ran, roughly the same ran as in 1998.

CTU backs stronger role for teachers

Under the bill, the purpose of Professional Personnel Advisory Committees (PPACs) would be “to reach optimal decisions jointly with the principal and local school council on matters of educational program.” PPACs would become Professional Personnel Leadership Committees.