A hallmark of the Renaissance Schools initiative, the School Advisory Councils (SACs) created recently in Philadelphia distinguish the School District's turnaround efforts from others around the country.
Studies of school turnaround nationally are largely silent on the role of parents and community, and the turnaround models promoted by the U.S. Department of Education make scant mention of parent and community engagement.
SACs are required here at all schools that undergo turnaround. They reflect a fresh insistence by neighborhood, city, and District leaders that to be sustainable, education reform needs the support and involvement of parents and local communities.
Our study of the first round of Renaissance Schools found that the March 2010 startup of the SACs, which are mostly made up of parent and community volunteers, created a sense of hope and change among some community members.
"I have seen and heard the excitement around change in the community," one SAC chair told our researchers. "They are putting more attention into the school and the students, to what is happening in the school."
As the year wore on, there was considerable variation in the strength, consistency, and direction of the SACs. Some were on sturdier footing than others; some were more successful than others at establishing strong parent leadership. Some were active, had a solid membership and were taking action, and some were still in process of developing. In others, the work had stalled due to turnover or internal conflicts.
In addition, there were some differences of opinion about what roles SACs should play. But in most cases, we found that the relationships between principals, SACs, and school managers were positive ones.
The SACs grew out of a recommendation by the Renaissance School Advisory Board, a group of about 70 education and civic leaders that the District brought together in 2009 to help shape its plans for the Renaissance Schools initiative.
This was not the first time in Philadelphia that District officials called for school-level councils in an attempt to include parents and community members and even students as real partners in reform efforts. Over the past three decades, the School District has seen several rounds of efforts to foster "school-based management" or "governance councils."
But the commitment to engaging community in this round of school reform stands in contrast to the measures that the School Reform Commission put in place in Philadelphia in the wake of the state takeover in 2002. Then, dozens of schools were turned over to private managers, and parents and the public were largely sidelined in the process.
District guidelines mandate that more than half of the members of each SAC are to be parents, because of their presumed direct interest in the school.
Of the 13 SAC chairs in the first round of Renaissance Schools, seven were parents or grandparents of children in the school, six were not. About half of the SACs had majority parent membership. To comply with the District mandate, SACs sometimes distinguished between voting and non-voting members, in order to have a parent majority in decision-making.
SAC chairs offered explanations for their volunteer involvement that went beyond looking out for their own children's well-being. Some spoke about how their school was an important community resource. Others pointed to their family's historical ties to the school.
SAC roles and responsibilities
SAC chairs, principals, charter managers and District staff had different and sometimes clashing views about the roles and responsibilities of the body.
For the Renaissance charters, District officials assigned SACs a central monitoring function: to advise the District on whether the charter managers did what they said they would do in their initial proposals to run the school. This monitoring happens through quarterly reports produced by the SACs.
As one District leader explained, the SACs were to be "the eyes and ears about what is going on. They are the temperature check."
Some SAC chairs believed that they should also be a part of the day-to-day decision-making processes at the school and saw their participation on the SAC as a way to make parent and community voices heard.
Principals and also some charter managers, in contrast, saw the SACs largely as supports to them. Some were uneasy with the sense of authority some SAC members felt. As one principal noted, "For some reason, [the SAC] got into this grandiose idea that they're in charge. So I have to kind of back them up and let them know I am in charge here."
Because District staff visited the Promise Academies schools regularly, these SACs were not counted on to play a strong monitoring role. Their charge in those schools was less clear. Mid-fall, the District informed the Promise Academies that the SACs should have input into their school improvement plan and budget, but tight deadlines for these processes limited full participation. SACs in Promise Academies were supposed to submit regular reports on their schools to the District, but this happened infrequently.
Resources and training
SACs overall felt limited by a lack of resources and training.
SAC chairs believed it would be easier to sustain membership and attract parents if they had even modest budgets for food, child care and outreach. Also, while they acknowledged the value of the District orientations and trainings, most SAC chairs thought they and their members would benefit from more training. In order to fulfill their role, SAC members took part in school walkthroughs, examined data, and observed classrooms, halls, and other public spaces – tasks that required new knowledge and skills for many members.
The second year of SAC involvement in Renaissance Schools will be critical. Their roles and responsibilities need clarification. And it is still not clear whether they will be sustainable, attracting a critical mass of parents and continuing to demand a voice.
Ultimately, a key question is whether SACs can develop into strong enough organizations that they can ensure their schools will be responsive to local communities – so that reform efforts can be sustained through the inevitable changes in school and District administrations.