Local school councils are a huge, messy undertaking. Every two years, advocates need to beat the bushes for candidates, and the School Board has to conduct elections at some 600 schools. Winners then must undergo formal training, while continuing to learn the most important lessons on the job. Some complain that principals handpick council members. Others say parents don’t know enough about education to make such important decisions about schools.

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.

That is not to say councils cannot work better. In some places—failing schools, for instance—they must. In reporting for this issue, Catalyst staff identified a number of ways to help councils and to intervene if help fails. Most LSC members we talked to said they wanted more teachers to sit on the council, which fits into the new agenda of the Chicago Teachers Union. They also wanted a personal trainer, of sorts, to advise them on principal selection and budget planning. Advocates argue for setting up formal networking channels for councils to supplant a vacuum in LSC leadership.

Informed by experience, this city’s school reform community has figured out how to work smarter and now is laying the groundwork to improve LSCs. A group of local funders is pledging support to create a $1 million fund to provide ongoing financial support for LSC elections and training. One not-for-profit, the Chicago School Leadership Cooperative, wants to start a high-quality LSC training institute, and it recently received a grant to get it going. Individual councils have lessons to share, too. For example, forming subcommittees has helped the council get more done at Blaine Elementary and bilingual minutes have broken the language barrier among council members at Mireles Elementary.

Now it’s time for top school officials and their ultimate boss, Mayor Richard M. Daley, to get fully on board. It’s easy to sympathize with those like School Board President Michael Scott who see larger issues, such as teacher contract negotiations and capital improvements, as higher priorities. However, giving councils short shrift is a huge waste of resources and a drag on school improvement. Councils offer great potential to get parents involved with schools and their children’s education, to make schools robust centers of their communities and to generate more political support for the school system. At a minimum, a well-run council relieves the central administration of having to worry about that school.

LSCs are really worth the effort.

NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND We are pleased to announce that William L. Taylor, chair of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights and longtime legal champion of low-income children, will be the featured speaker at a March 26 symposium on what the new federal education law means for Chicago schools. Confirmed panelists are Barbara Eason-Watkins, CPS chief education officer; Deborah Lynch, president of the Chicago Teachers Union; and Gail Lieberman, manager of the Student and School Progress Department of the Illinois State Board of Education.

The symposium is being organized by Catalyst and Leadership for Quality Education; sponsors are the McDougal Family Foundation and The Chicago Community Trust. It will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at a downtown location; check the click here for details and check again soon for final arrangements. Seats are limited; reservations are required and may be made by calling Ericka Moore-Freeman, (312) 673-3867 or emailing her at moore-freeman@catalyst-chicago.org. Let us know what questions you have about the law, too.

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