Local school councils have had a troubled childhood. Adored at birth 13 years ago, they quickly fell into neglect as the school system struggled for financial stability and common purpose. Then a stern stepfather, former schools chief Paul Vallas, clipped their wings by imposing more centralized control.

Now councils have entered their teens, and many in Chicago’s broad-based school reform community believe it’s time for them to grow up.

“It’s a pivotal time for the system … to embrace LSCs and work with them and for LSCs to embrace the system,” says Paul Goren, vice president of The Spencer Foundation. “Or, it’s time to rethink the model.”

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.

“Teachers feel powerless,” Lynch says. “They have very little say” about instruction through their LSCs.

Goren and Lynch are among more than 50 local leaders CATALYST interviewed to find out what it would take for LSCs to grow into full-fledged partners in school improvement. Their consensus: Still uncertain in using their powers and groping for answers, LSCs need more support and strong leadership to make the transition.

Indeed, none of those interviewed call for an end to LSCs, although a few would render them advisory, taking away powers to hire principals, spend discretionary budgets and approve school improvement plans.

Even the least effective LSCs do a better job of connecting parents and community residents to their schools than the old central administration model did, says Harvard University researcher Archon Fung.

“LSCs in lower-income neighborhoods often have a harder time functioning, but they’re much more important in those neighborhoods,” he says.

Most leaders Catalyst contacted say LSCs need better training, candidate recruitment support and dynamic leadership from the Board of Education. (See story page 7.)

“The only way we can achieve the goals we want to achieve is by having strong local school councils,” says schools chief Arne Duncan.

In recent years, the board has increased the size of its LSC-related staff and budget, but it could use more manpower and money, says James Deanes, director of School and Community Relations.

In fact, the 2002 budget earmarks $4.1 million for a staff of 23 to cover training, election and mediation needs for some 5,500 council members at 600 schools. Deanes says his department is spread thin, and only a dozen staffers are available to work directly with LSCs.

Meanwhile, those who serve on councils are frustrated by overwhelming responsibilities, low visibility and lack of recognition.

“We have power, but we don’t know how to use it,” says Asunción Torres, a parent rep at Farragut High School. Torres says politics have been a stumbling block, and too many parents on her council blindly follow the principal and teachers. She probably will not run again this spring. “I’m very discouraged.”

Councils also have suffered from bad press and repeated clashes with former CEO Vallas, says Anthony Bryk of the Consortium on Chicago School Research. “The only time you hear about [LSCs] is when there’s a scandal,” he explains. “But day in and day out, there are thousands of people volunteering innumerable hours helping their schools, and hardly anyone acknowledges [them].”

Overriding councils

Riding a wave of accountability, Vallas unilaterally intervened at troubled schools, often removing and installing principals and instituting measures that, in effect, limited council choices in curriculum and principal selection and retention.

In 1999, Vallas pushed state lawmakers to give central office veto power over council decisions to retain principals. Council advocates lobbied hard and averted the measure, but principals did win the right to appeal if they felt unfairly fired.

Vallas also engaged in a running war of words with organized advocates of LSCs. Together, the Vallas policies and rhetoric cast a cloud over LSCs.

“Paul really felt that much of the blame for poor performance lay at the local level,” says Martin “Mike” Koldyke, founder of the Golden Apple Foundation. “And yet, when he had an opportunity to intervene, he did it terribly.”

Since he was appointed last summer, Duncan has taken steps toward mending LSC-board relations. LSCs advocates applaud him for opening the lines of communication and meeting with them one-on-one. Duncan was the featured speaker at an event sponsored by Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), a council advocacy group that Vallas disparaged.

Duncan says intervening in council decisions should be used only as a last resort. “We’re committed to doing everything we can to patch things up, to stabilize things,” he says. “If we have to step in, we’ll do that.”

Some high-ranking CPS officials still consider LSCs an inconvenience, says state Rep. Mary Lou Cowlishaw, (R-Naperville), who helped shape LSC training legislation in 1995. “There’s resistance out there, [but] it’s not easy to define,” she notes. “It tends to work in quiet and somewhat devious ways, but to not recognize that it’s there is a failure to be realistic.”

“There is a natural tension between LSCs and CPS that needs to exist,” says PURE Executive Director Julie Woestehoff. Even as relations between the two sides warm, the board should maintain a hands-off approach, she adds. “We have different agendas, so CPS help should be limited,” she explains. “CPS should only provide information, and not have a direct hand in local school business.”

Jumpstarting councils

Looking ahead, some say a heavy dose of board commitment, money and support is the only way that LSCs can grow into full partnership with their schools.

While paying lip service to more support for LSCs, the board, so far, is unable to articulate a clear plan for doing so. Duncan suggests subdividing the six regions as one way for the board to help more councils.

School Board President Michael Scott concedes teacher contract negotiations and capital improvements are higher priorities. “Once we get these [LSC] elections out of the way … then I think we’ll begin to take leadership.”

Don Moore of Designs for Change says the new CPS leaders are making a mistake by not acting immediately to remedy long-standing LSC problems. Some LSCs still complain that central office staffers are interfering in their work, he notes. “[Duncan and Scott] been in there for 6 months, and they haven’t taken control and changed this behavior,” he says.

Secondly, the board should make high-quality training a top priority, especially for LSCs in low-income areas, he adds.

Says Michael Klonsky of the Small Schools Workshop: “People in low-income communities are capable of being good organizers and leaders, [but] the schools need so much more work and leadership.”

In February, The Community Trust awarded a $200,000 grant to an LSC advocacy group that plans to create an advanced training and support center for councils. “It’s great. It’s needed to happen for a while,” says Andrew Wade, executive director of the Chicago School Leadership Cooperative.

Overall, LSCs suffer from a leadership vacuum of their own, a void that was exacerbated in 1999 when the Chicago Association of Local School Councils (CALSC) imploded after months of infighting.

LSCs need a citywide association or a central governing body to represent them, says Phyllis Martin of the Financial Research and Advisory Committee (FRAC). “It’s so dispersed,” she says. “[CPS’ new leaders] don’t know who to talk to or where to go.”

Nancy Jones of the Chicago Successful Schools Project says LSCs could also use a formal network to tap the expertise of veteran LSC members.

Working in isolation led Jeanne Marie Schultz, a council member at Edgebrook Elementary, to help to form a coalition of 13 Northwest Side elementary schools four years ago. The Coalition for Excellence is an informal group that exchanges information, advice and support. It has been easier to get the attention of legislators and CPS officials on state funding and overcrowding when they speak as a group instead of as individual councils, she adds.

“It’s been very helpful to talk with the other schools to see the other problems they’re facing,” Schultz says. “It’s been a tremendous resource for all of our schools.”

Catalyst staff contributed to this report. Comments may be emailed to editorial@catalyst-chicago.org.

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