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District wants School Advisory Councils everywhere

The SAC model was designed last year for Renaissance Schools. Now the goal is for all schools to have one.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

UPDATE: The District is planning to develop a proposal to start School Advisory Councils at 115 of the lowest-performing schools.

The problem – students being bullied going to and from school – wasn’t that unusual, but the school community’s response was.

Within weeks, corners within a five-block radius of the elementary school were being patrolled by male parents and community members before the school day started and after dismissal. Parents also set up a "safe corridors" program inside the school. The bullying all but stopped.

Karren Dunkley, deputy chief of the District’s Office of Parent, Family, Community Engagement, and Faith-Based Partnerships, didn’t want to identify the school in question. But she was quick to attribute the solution to its School Advisory Council (SAC).

"The whole school climate changed tremendously," Dunkley said in an interview.

Successes like these, she said, have led the District to launch an ambitious plan to have a functioning SAC in every school in the District – not just at its "turnaround schools."

"This is going to require a huge culture shift," Dunkley said. "It can’t be forced. It can’t be ‘compliance.’"

The rollout plan for taking SACs citywide started at the District’s three-day Leadership Institute in August. There, 63 of the 459 principals and assistant principals attended optional panel sessions on how to develop and work with these councils, made up of parents and community members.

"Traditionally, we’ve had some acrimony, some lack of trust" in the process of getting the SACs started, Dunkley said, and the panel sessions were an attempt to build acceptance from the start.

District officials see this as vital as they take the SAC model from its beginnings in the first batch of Renaissance Schools – where this community-based process was part of the reform package from day one – to schools that have traditionally functioned without it. Some councils play a monitoring role and write quarterly reports.

The launch of new councils starts in October with SAC nominations, which will stretch into November.

A citywide "SAC Summit" will be held October 15 October 29 at Fels High School Benjamin Franklin High School. Topics will include "Effective Recruitment and Retention of Parents," "Intercultural Competence," "Navigating the School District of Philadelphia’s Action Plan and Budget," and "Conducting an Effective SAC meeting."

Once elections have been held, Dunkley said, the District hopes to publish a meeting calendar covering all the SACs.

December through April will be dedicated to technical and professional development for SAC members, followed in May by an end-of-year citywide "summit" to evaluate the work of the SACs.

Lauren Jacobs, Philadelphia coordinator for the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, said that getting functioning SACs at every school in the District in one year may not be possible, but that she remains generally optimistic about expanding the program, even in austere fiscal times.

"You get a lot of bang for your buck," she said, adding that "there’s not much money to be saved" in cutting SAC support, given the program’s modest budget.

"We’ll see more examples of vibrant SACs, and that will start changing the whole culture. A lot of principals aren’t trained for this kind of shared decision-making."

Jacobs sits on a SAC working group of District and community officials and stakeholders that met over the summer to discuss possible changes in the program and ways to transform the District’s culture as well as the schools’ culture.

According to minutes of the group’s meetings, suggestions have included:

  • Aggregating all of the quarterly monitoring reports submitted by SACs into a districtwide report to be submitted to the School Reform Commission on a regular basis.
  • Improving the SAC quarterly reports to include measurement, reporting, and consequences for poor performance. "Quarterly reports, as a vehicle for reporting, will have to include some guidelines to measure the effectiveness of the SACs and the quality of the work they are producing."
  • Making the successful implementation of SACs a factor in how schools score on the District’s School Performance Index (SPI).
  • Having the principal’s attendance at SAC meetings and collaboration with the SAC be part of his or her evaluation.

Another focus of the working group this summer was developing a handbook to guide the members of SACs on procedures and best practices.

Both SAC members and District officials see training as a key issue. Rosalind Lopez, interim secretary on the John B. Stetson Middle School SAC, said, for example, that members had so far been trained only in preparing the quarterly report.

Yvonne Soto, manager of innovation and partnership schools, sees data analysis as a particularly important area for training, particularly in those SACs who do not have community members familiar with the subject. She also wants to concentrate on helping the SACs with outreach, recruiting potential members.

Soto, who worked closely with the first batch of SACs in the Renaissance Schools, remains confident that the District will have the in-house resources to provide necessary training for new and continuing SAC members. But she says the District will have to both provide more generalized "upfront" training for SAC members and also be able to customize training for individual SACS, particularly sessions at the schools.

"I’m going to be working with them to be more well-rounded," she said, "to get beyond what’s in the quarterly report – growing as leaders in the community."