The local school council at Locke Elementary School in Belmont-Cragin gets high marks from all quarters. A local community organizer says it’s the most well organized council in that part of the city. A DePaul University professor who works with dozens of schools uses it to describe how an LSC ought to work. And the Chicago Association of Local School Councils gave it an award last year for investing in staff development.”The council and principal are very honest with each other, and they work together very, very well,” says Barbara Radner, director of the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University. “The LSC doesn’t just meet, they really discuss what’s going on.”

Even so, the council has struggled to fill vacancies, and meetings don’t draw many parents. “We’re not an exciting group,” says LSC secretary Jim Gardner, adding, “The question isn’t how exciting you are; it’s how much you get done.”

Locke’s LSC is fairly homogeneous and “working class,” as longtime parent representative Bill Nielsen puts it. Nielsen is a CTA mechanic and a union shop steward; other members include a contractor, a veterinarian’s assistant, a teachers’ aide and a controller for a construction firm. Several members have served five years or more. And five members are men, a fact that Principal Myrtle Burton-Sahara especially appreciates. “It’s important for the kids to see that it isn’t just moms involved,” she says.

As with many councils, Locke’s major activities have been lobbying for physical improvements to the building and winning parent and community consensus on touchy issues.

Burton-Sahara recalls when the school building was in “deplorable” condition. “You should have seen it,” she says with a small shudder. The school’s parent-teacher committee repeatedly sent letters and made phone calls to School Board officials—to no avail. But then the local school council came along and picked up the fight, winning a rehab in the early 1990s.

Without a council, Burton-Sahara says, “I think the board would have looked at it as, Oh, here’s another principal jumping up and down and screaming about what they don’t have. … It has some meaning when you say, ‘My local school council feels this way.’ … In the past, I could say, ‘Well, you know my parents such and such and such….’ It would be, ‘Big deal. Do this.’ Or, ‘You can’t do that.'”

At a February local school council meeting, Locke Principal Myrtle Burton-Sahara (center)listens as architects describe the interior of the addition planned for Locke’s building. (Photo by John Booz)

Burton-Sahara says the facilities overhaul made a tremendous difference for learning. “You could tell after it was done and the kids came back and the teachers came back—it was just a different attitude.”

Now Locke is looking forward to relief from its overcrowding–900 children currently are packed into a building built for 600. An addition is being built—again, thanks to lobbying by the council.

In the meantime, the lunchroom is being used for four bilingual classes. That makeshift remedy was unpopular with some parents, says Sahara, but they went along with it “because they knew we had fought to the nth degree trying to avoid that.” She credits the LSC with building support for the decision among parents.

Teachers and council members spent months looking for alternatives. “I think everybody got to the point where it was the only solution,” says council chair Debbie Caputo. “It was the lesser of two evils.”

Burton-Sahara also applauds her council colleagues for helping her get rid of a school engineer “who was just the pits.” First, the council put an “engineer’s report” on the agenda of every LSC meeting. Then, they recruited a contractor, Frank Rogus, as a parent representative. “The meetings that year were mostly about harassing the engineer,” he recalls. Finally, the recalcitrant engineer quit. His replacement didn’t last long either, but Burton-Sahara calls the current engineer “an angel.”

The work of the Locke LSC is wide ranging:

Members call and visit Pershing Road staff to clear bureaucratic roadblocks. For instance, members have been pestering School Board staff because Locke has been short a security guard all year. The board has suspended the man with pay, pending an investigation of an incident predating his arrival at Locke, and the council wants a substitute.

Members use connections with elected officials to lobby for improvements to the street and sidewalks around the school. Parent rep Bill Nielsen coaches a Little League team that once included the son of Ald. William Banks. “So he recognizes me,” says Nielsen.

The council casts itself as a forum for making difficult decisions. For instance, a uniform policy was thoroughly debated before the council decided to adopt it.

The council backs up its faculty by supporting budget requests. For example, the school has made heavy investments in staff development and computers. Locke is part of the national Accelerated Schools Network, which requires extensive faculty training, and the school has six computers in many classrooms, including almost all classes in grades 6-8.

Members take on other volunteer projects. Parent rep Rogus built tables for the school’s first computer lab, and other members have sought donations of used computers to supplement what the school can buy.

The council’s current focus is increasing parent participation. “People aren’t exactly busting down the door to get in here,” acknowledges teacher rep Robert Malek.

Locke has an active parent-teacher committee, but it’s small, with a core made up of spouses of LSC members. Last fall, the council signed up for a two-year project with the Chicago Association of Local School Councils (CALSC) to boost parent involvement. Teachers and parents completed a baseline survey in December; the Locke council will use the results to guide their efforts to bring more parents in.

Another challenge is making the council more reflective of the school’s changing enrollment. The council has only one Latino member, a recent recruit, even though the school’s Latino enrollment has grown to more than 40 percent. In schools like Locke, where no racial or ethnic group dominates enrollment, the LSC tends to be predominantly white, according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Council chair Caputo worked with organizers from the Northwest Neighborhood Federation to encourage some members of the school’s bilingual parents’ committee to run in this year’s LSC elections. None of them signed up, but they made some suggestions that organizers are helping the school follow up on, especially creating English classes for parents.

Burton-Sahara clearly takes pride in Locke’s growing diversity, which includes Polish as well as Mexican immigrants. Last December, the school celebrated International Day, with each class performing folk music from a different country. The principal took the microphone for an impassioned solo during a faculty number called “Celebrate the Difference.”

Locke also reflects a key finding of a study by the Chicago Panel on School Policy, which closely monitored 14 councils over five years. The schools that posted the highest achievement gains, the Panel found, were those where the first local school council retained a strong principal.

Burton-Sahara had been principal of Locke for 12 years when the LSC took office. Since then, Locke’s test scores have steadily improved, even as enrollment has grown 50 percent and the percentage of low-income pupils has risen from 54 to 70.

While teachers and council members say her commitment to shared decision-making paved the way for improvement, Burton-Sahara says parents paved the way for her success amid racial strife.

Burton-Sahara is one of the many principals and teachers who were transferred in 1977 as part of a citywide faculty desegregation plan, which the Board of Education adopted under federal pressure. She is African American; at the time, Locke’s neighborhood was overwhelmingly white. Locke already had some African-American students, due to busing from the West Side, and the community was “not happy” about that, she says. In addition, Burton-Sahara replaced a well-liked principal.

“There were phone calls, threats [from] some Nazi group, the John Birch Society, the KKK,” she relates. “So that was my welcome.”

But there also was a phone call from Phyllis Schmidt, president of the school’s PTA. “She called me to say that they hated to see their principal go, but their children’s education was the most important thing, and they would be working closely with me,” says Burton-Sahara. “I’m not naïve enough to believe that everybody welcomed me with open arms, but that PTA’s executive committee made it possible for me to stay here.”

No longer affiliated with the National PTA (to avoid dues), the school’s parent-teacher group works closely with the LSC, especially in the area of facilities improvements. It engages in traditional activities as well, raising money through candy sales, special events and direct solicitation of local officials. The group is planning a Candlelight Bowl for this spring, and Ald. Banks recently ponied up $200.

Milja Lazarevic, a teacher rep on the council, is dumbfounded over talk about restricting LSC powers. “Some of those guys in Springfield, I could just slap them,” she says. “They want to take away our powers. I mean, who knows the neighborhood better than the parents, and the other parents who talk to these parents about what their kids want and need? I mean, teachers can’t do it all by themselves. The principals can’t do it all by themselves. And we have a really good council, we get along with Mrs. Sahara, and it seems to be working here.”

Nielsen resents what he sees as central office poaching on LSC turf and taking credit for local accomplishments. “We do all the work, and then you [central office] get all the glory?” he asks rhetorically. A longtime union man, Nielsen thinks councils should get together, union-style, to advocate for themselves.

Council secretary Gardner says the administration of Paul Vallas is an improvement from “the Ted Kimbroughs and the Argie Johnsons” but that bureaucracy is still a problem. “I work in the business world, and it frustrates me,” he says. “You come up with a solution, and you just get a blank stare. You feel like shaking those people and saying, Look, in the private sector, if you don’t get results, you’re out on the street.

“On this current administration, the jury is still out,” he adds, “but at least they give you a direct answer: Yes, we’ll do that. No, you’re nuts. Or, We’ll get back to you. I can deal with that.”

“I like the new board,” says Lazarevic, “and I’m grateful for my contract and my salary and everything. But they really need to put more money towards education in the classroom. Yeah, we needed a new building, but we need books. We have to have more supplies. We need little stuff, and we’re not getting it.”

Lazarevic’s children attend Locke. When they started school there, her teaching career was on hold. But when Locke needed more teachers, fellow parents pushed her to fill the gap. She’s since started Locke’s science program—which this year produced two finalists in the citywide science fair.

Initially, Caputo didn’t want her children to attend Locke. “I swore my children would never go to a public school,” she says. “I went to a public school. I went through four years of high school, and I never wrote a term paper. Luckily, I was a strong reader, so I was able to make it.”

However, local private schools told her they couldn’t accommodate her daughter’s learning disability. “So I finally said, Let me see what’s over there. I was actually very impressed.”

Caputo says staff have been very accommodating. “Anytime I’ve come to them and said, ‘This is what I think would work for Vicki,’ they’ve said, ‘Let’s try it.’ You know, I’ve never met up against any resistance. They’re willing to listen. I think they know that I know her best.”

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