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From the archives: Councils seeking a role

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

The Notebook was launched in 1994 as a newspaper committed to ensuring quality and equity in Philadelphia public schools. We are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first publication this spring. We are featuring an article from our archives each week, shedding light on both the dramatic changes that have taken place in public education and the persistent issues facing Philadelphia’s school system.

From the Fall 1997 print edition:

by Solomon Jones and Helen Gym

When you talk about how school councils are faring in the District, compare these two faces.

One reflects the enthusiasm and confidence of Thora Jacobson, a parent at Meredith Elementary School who attended Meredith’s first school council meeting in early October. Jacobson said the council immediately began making plans to address student achievement.

"I really do feel it will be effective," said Jacobson. "I feel pretty strongly this is a system within which I can work and where I can effect a change."

The other face, full of concern, belongs to Caroline Hopkins, a parent at Edison High School.

Hopkins showed a copy of the resignation letter she had written after her election to the Edison School Council in November 1996. The letter, addressed to the Edison High School principal, stated she had resigned because of an "inappropriate election."

"Candidates were working the tables; we were counting the votes," Hopkins said. "There was no officiation. The parents knew nothing about who we were. Some parents told us to check off the names on the ballots."

Hopkins and another parent stepped off the council within weeks of the election to protest the process. Hopkins said the election raised serious questions about the accountability of school councils to the larger parent body.

"To this day, they have not addressed the parents. We don’t have any idea what’s going on in that council," Hopkins said. "They’re supposed to be accountable to us. Who are they responding to?"

These two faces reflect the range of emotions and expectations surrounding school councils, the key public engagement strategy in the Children Achieving plan. A school council is a body of teachers, administrators and elected parents and students joined together to help run the school.

Yet the experiences of Jacobson and Hopkins point out that, two years into the project, school councils are highly inconsistent across the district.

While a few show promise in actual decision-making, others are mired in seemingly endless training sessions, basic discussions, or chronic lack of participation. Some councils meet monthly; others struggle to get together a few times a year. Many have never even been launched.

And despite the fact that the District outlined six specific goals for each school council, many remain confused about their purpose.

"There has been a lot of confusion about what these councils are supposed to be doing, and I think that has created conflict and perceptions that they are not as influential as [Superintendent] Hornbeck has suggested they are," said Masterman parent Joan Myers-Goodman.

Councils: Accountable to whom?

According to the Cluster Support Office, there are currently 136 certified school councils in the District. Certified school councils are those claiming that 35 percent of the households at each school have voted in an election to choose four of the five parent representatives on each council; the fifth representative is designated for the Home and School President.

Some clusters, especially those in the six pilot clusters set up in 1995, have certified school councils in all or nearly all their schools. Others have only a few certified councils. Fels and William Penn clusters, for example, each have only one school with a council.

Over 75 percent, or 103 school councils, are in elementary schools. Only 23 middle schools and 10 high schools have certified councils. Most functioning school councils are now entering their second full year of operation.

School councils were introduced in the Children Achieving plan as the best hope for moving the school system toward community-based accountability. But no one at the district level is following through on this vision.

The only official records on the school councils are the affidavits certifying them, according to Chris McGinley, executive director of leadership development. Beyond that, the responsibility for what councils do lies in the cluster office and at the school level.

"The school council itself has a great deal of discretion on how often it meets and what they talk about," McGinley said.

Kay Lovelace, Associate Superintendent for the Office of Leadership and Leaming, said accountability for fulfilling the council responsibilities would be at the school level. A principal’s annual performance review would take into account their work on the school council, Lovelace said.

The degree to which the councils hold a school accountable is also in question.

A school council holds limited decision-making power. Many of its actions are advisory both in theory and in reality, although District spokespeople stress that there are areas where the councils have decision-making power.

In addition, councils are often composed of people who are already part of the school hierarchy. Many school councils are chaired by the principal.

Eleanor Jordan, who serves as a parent representative on the school council at Bache-Martin, said the lack of enough parent representatives on the councils is a major concern.

"Here you have the principal who is the final word, the authority, and you have teachers who are more worried about their rights as workers. Who is going to represent the children?" said Jordan, who believes there should be at least 50 percent parent representation on the councils.

Because of the low academic achievement at so many schools, it is critical for the councils to challenge current practices. But because there are so few parent representatives, Jordan was concerned they would not feel comfortable in that role. "If you challenge, you’re confrontational," she said.

Confusion over goals

The School District is holding the cluster offices responsible for making school councils viable. However, interviews with a number of cluster leaders show different understandings about the role of school councils.

Many cluster leaders did say they obtained copies of council agendas and tried to send a representative to meetings. Beyond that, expectations were limited.

"It’s hard for us to impose goals on schools when they know the things they need," said Janice Snitow, administrative assistant at the CHAIN cluster. "My understanding is that the councils decide what the goals are. We wouldn’t mandate that."

The District, however, outlines six specific duties, including developing and publicizing "discipline policies and other schoolwide policies affecting students" and creating a "public engagement plan to involve parents, the wider community, and civic leaders." Five of the six duties require reporting back to the larger parent body.

Furness cluster leader Arthur Rubin said he did not believe that the councils even had specific charges.

”They are not charged with anything," Rubin said. "They make their own agendas. Their charge is to benefit the kids, community, staff and student achievement at that school. Those [the discipline policy and the public engagement plan] are just examples."

These days, most school councils seem to be mired in training on basic group dynamics. According to most cluster leaders, training is their number one activity for school councils. The problem, however, lies in the fact that most school councils are already into their second year and are still focusing their time and energy on team building, collaborative decision-making and procedural issues.

Lincoln cluster leader Karen DelGuercio said that because her councils had been involved in training for the past year, she could not abide by the two-year term limits set by the District for parents. "The District gives the guidelines but it’s up to the school to decide," DeJGuercio said.

A fair election process?

The primary problem in getting the councils running seems to be abiding by the rules for governing their formation. According to District rules, 35 percent of the parents in the school must participate in an election supervised by the Home and School Association.

The lack of ground rules for a fair election process has been one problem. Meeting the 35 percent requirement for voting parents has also proven difficult.

"At no time do you get 35 percent of the parents in one room," said Lincoln cluster leader Del Guercio. "If you send out ballots, many chances you don’t get them back. It’s our biggest hurdle."

"We asked every parent who came through the door of the school for anything to participate in the elections," said Ben Sears, a West Philadelphia High School teacher who serves on its uncertified school council. "We still couldn ‘t get the 35 percent. We needed something like 600 and we ended up with 200."

Edison parent Hopkins said many of the parents who did vote did not know whom they were voting for. "We were supposed to have a meeting and introduce everyone and give everyone a chance to speak," said Hopkins. That assembly never took place, according to Hopkins.

A number of cluster leaders said many of the parent representatives on the council were closely affiliated with the Home and School.

Yvonne Epps, Philadelphia Home and School Council President, said her office did not encourage such a practice during elections.

"You are hoping that you don ‘t get the same people over and over again, but if they ran legally and won, then what can you do?" said Epps.

Next steps

Despite the difficulties many school councils face, for the first time a formal role for parents as decision makers has been provided. The challenge remains to see whether that promise can be fulfilled.

A number of parents remain committed to improving and expanding the powers of the council and to holding the body accountable to the larger school community.

"What I do know is that I have grandchildren in the school that I’m responsible for," said Jordan, the Bache-Martin school council member. "You can’t walk away because you don’t agree with anything. You have the responsibility to fix it or let it be known you don’t like it."

Edison parent Hopkins, however, is determined to move on and explore other routes for involvement.

She and 20 other parents have formed the Edison Parent Leaders through the assistance of the Alliance Organizing Project, a city-wide parent organizing group. Hopkins said the Edison Parent Leaders have already met with the cluster leader and principal and have made improvements in lunchroom discipline, hallway safety, and increasing the number of computers in the classrooms.

"I was looking for a group to do things in that school," said Hopkins. "I didn’t want to be used to just sign off on stuff. I want to get right involved in the nitty gritty and with the people. This is about change."

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