This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The auditorium at District headquarters was full, with people dragging in additional chairs and tables, as more than 200 people gathered at a School Reform Commission meeting Wednesday night to discuss the expansion and empowerment of School Advisory Councils.
School Reform Commissioner Sylvia Simms, who has led the effort to expand and empower SACs, welcomed the group, describing how giving parents more power can lead to better schools. Her message was seconded by SRC Chair Marjorie Neff, a former District principal.
Simms, a lifelong resident of North Philadelphia, explained that her school involvement began when she was a bus attendant for students with disabilities.
"I saw how important it was for families to educate themselves about the system, so that they could advocate for themselves and have a voice in their children’s education," she said.
The meeting was called because the SRC wants the District "to have a policy that puts a school advisory group in every single District school," she said. "We’re asking you to help us understand what that should look like."
Neff, who said she was speaking for the entire SRC, said collaborative decision-making is essential for schools. “No one person has all the answers.”
The participants included parents and advocates, as well as school principals, District officials, and SRC members.
SACs are described on the School District’s website as “active and engaged” family and community advisory groups. They can review school budgets, advise on discretionary spending, approve policies (including those regarding discipline), give support to school programs and their initiatives, and examine data to inform actions. Members are expected to advertise and hold regular meetings, as well as conduct at least two community meetings a year to get feedback.
Along with the principal, members are expected to help create “a collaborative, inclusive and transparent process” to inform school-based decisions and address issues like bullying, truancy, and student achievement. They are required to include parents, community members, teachers, and the principal (and, in high schools, several students), with parents making up a majority.
These guidelines were developed several years ago by a working group led by Karren Dunkley, then in the Office of Family and Community Engagement and now principal of Parkway Center City High School. Simms was part of the working group as a leader of Parent Power; other organizations involved included Youth United for Change, Philadelphia Student Union, Education Law Center, and the Home and School Association.
But the existence of functional SACs since then has been spotty, despite several years of effort to establish them. The point of the initiative led by Simms is to develop a policy for the SRC to vote on that formalizes the duties, authority, and membership requirements for SACs.
At the meeting, before participants broke up for small group discussions, a panel that included parents, community members, and principal Andrew Lukov of Southwark Elementary School discussed both the benefits and the challenges of having a SAC.
Lukov, whose school has a functioning SAC, said that it is a “free resource” for overburdened principals and “can be powerful in terms of making decisions.” He also said a SAC brings together people from different cultural groups – Southwark has a diverse student body – and can bring attention to a variety of concerns that may not otherwise get it.
Some of the challenges that emerged from both the panel and the discussions include recruiting parents, dealing with principals who are less than welcoming, and giving the SACs real influence and power.
“It’s a challenge to get parents to come out,” said La’Skeetia Simms, a community member at Peirce Elementary in North Philadelphia and Sylvia Simms’ daughter. “Every day I’m struggling.”
Lukov said that principals need to learn that SACs can take things off his or her plate rather than add to it. Suggestions that came out of the group discussions included making sure that principals communicate with other principals about the benefits and evaluating principals in part on whether their schools have functioning SACs.
Elizabeth Hernandez, who has two children at Stearne Elementary in Frankford, said in an interview that staff support is crucial for parents to feel welcome in a school.
"The staff needs to get involved, not just parents," she said. "If parents don’t feel welcome, they won’t come."
Lori Shorr, the former city chief education officer who facilitated the opening panel, said that principals can’t treat SACs like something else to check off on a to-do list rather than a real partner in collaboration and decision-making.
“Do the SACs get to deal with tough questions that the schools are dealing with?” Shorr asked. If people feel they have a real role in solving big problems, they’ll stay, she said.
Lauren Jacobs, who was on the advisory committee that set up Wednesday’s meeting, said that SACs will be important in the community schools initiative, which has been embraced by Mayor Kenney and City Council leadership.
“We know from other school districts that having parents, community members, and students involved in these important decisions improves students’ learning experiences,” Jacobs said. SACs also “change the whole culture of a school so that everyone there feels more supported and connected to the community.”
The SRC is accepting applications through March 11 from people who are interested in joining a new working group to formalize the SACs for an SRC vote. Anyone interested can access a nomination form here or call 215-400-4010.