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Lessons from the School Advisory Councils' first year

The March 2010 startup of the SACs created a sense of hope and change among some community members.

by Eva Gold and Deborah Good

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.

SAC composition

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.

About the Author

This article draws on a study of the Renaissance Schools conducted by Research for Action, where the authors are researchers. This research was commissioned by the Accountability Review Council. For the full report, visit www.researchforaction.org.

Comments (8)

Submitted by former teacher (not verified) on Fri, 10/28/2011 - 19:35.

Research for Action's agenda needs to be examined by the Notebook before they are put forth as an independent, non-partisan organization. Look at their affiliation with PACER, where Gov. Corbett is one of the co-chairs. This ongoing restructuring of schools leads to less stability in schools where most of the teachers are exiled for no reason.

Submitted by former teacher (not verified) on Fri, 10/28/2011 - 19:46.

Go to the link under About the Author, then about, leadership. We know what Corbett's plan is: charters, privatization, vouchers. RFA puts forth teacher evaluation as one of, if no the, most pressing issue in education. I thought it was poverty, lack of resources, and massive funding cuts by the Governor.

Submitted by Educrat (not verified) on Tue, 11/01/2011 - 08:28.

There is nothing wrong with evaluating teachers; however it should NOT be done internally. Given as there will always be politics involved, individual evaluations should be scrapped in favor of team evaluations which should include the principal.

Submitted by Educrat (not verified) on Tue, 11/01/2011 - 08:23.

Article typifies what is wrong with career (probably white suburban) educators. Totally erroneous. There are enough studies and interest in parent/community involvement to have this written into Title I - how old is this? How about SPAC, PIRC, and Center for Schools and Communities? Not to mention Solid Foundation which Cook Wissahickon, a stellar success story, has participated in.

SACs are NOTHING new. Already in place is Home and School, and meagerly the School Councils. SACs wasted/donated a lot of public funds to Frontline Solutions for "professional development/training" How much exactly? Probably enough to make up for some of the funds now being cut in basic services. I am most bitter about the proposed $300,000 to Instrumental Music, the only redeeming thing I found about having to put my children into the Philadelphia S.D.

Like Home and School, and School Councils, SACs totally ignore the unhealthy power dynamics of resting the whole affair on the shoulders of the principal. SACs will go the same route as Home and School and School Councils. The success depends entirely on the leadership ability of the principal, and his or her moral integrity. In the case of a school just blocks from Cook Wissahickon, good parent/community involvement is nonexistant/an abysmal failure (and not for lack of trying) and proof enough of the importance of having this. The difference in academic achievement for kids with identical demographics is glaring and undeniable.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on Tue, 11/01/2011 - 09:20.

The article and the perceptive comments above raise some very important issues. I had the Great learning experience of being involved in one of our district's and nation's first governance council initiatives led by Pew Charitable Trusts. I was elected by our governance council members to be the chairman back at UCHS in 1993.

When I was an AP at Furness, we voted to have a school council. The teachers and parents voted separately to have a school council. That council, met a few times but fell through when it was obvious that Paul Vallas and his Chicago regime were going to do whatever they wanted anyway regardless of what the council wanted to do.

Those original councils included all stakeholders -- teachers, parents, a student and community members. There was a strict process for electing members and governing rules which were excellently written by Harry Gafne. Those councils were supposed to be "shared decison-making bodies" not mere advisory groups.

I suggest cognizance of the above commenter's remarks about the "power dynamics of principals." Arlene Ackerman clearly wanted the SACS to do her bidding for her and if they didn't, she disregarded them. That was the same "tragic flaw" of those previous councils -- the principals and central administrators did whatever they wanted to do anyway.

The comment that was made to us back in 1993 at UCHS by the Great Joe DiRaddo, a reading teacher and critical friend of mine still echoes in my mind, "Who makes the final decision? Then why are you wasting my time?"

Submitted by Educrat (not verified) on Tue, 11/01/2011 - 10:44.

Thanks for your input, and the final comment which pretty much sums it up, "Then why are you wasting my time?"

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on Wed, 11/02/2011 - 09:14.

Please do not get me wrong. I am in favor of school councils. When done properly they can achieve very postiive organizational synergy and create the feeling of 'We" in the governance and leadership of schools. However, when not done properly they can create a Mess that causes frustratiion, hard feelings and heartache.

To be effcective any type of school council must have rules governing them which include, rules for the election of their members, processes of decision-making, and rules explicily stating their powers. They must have an organizational document governing those processes.

The above commenter's perception is poiignant: "The success depends entirely on the leadership ability of the principal and his or her moral integrity."

If principals and district administrators intend to use PACS as instruments of their power and control games, they are doomed to failure from the start. If after working hard, the members see their efforts being neglected and the principals do whatever they want anyway, the effort will fail.

What needs to be a central topic of our discussion on these matters is whether teachers are being included in this scenario. If not, Why?

Submitted by Educrat (not verified) on Wed, 11/02/2011 - 10:30.

Again, thanks for your wonderfully positive and idealistic comments. Home and School has rules in place that when followed conscientiously tend to bring good results. They have very little power to enforce these rules (as I found out) however. The principal has the final say.

What is interesting (and rather dismaying) about SACs is that they sideline the Home and School (which does exist/originate outside the district). The School Councils had a provision that a parent representation must include Home and School, while the SAC is totally silent/ignores the existence of this organization. So Ms. Ackerman has superimposed another egotistical creation. It is all too obvious that the SAC in its wording simply addresses the Title I/Federal mandates. So it is another example of administrative fiscal posturing. Come on guys, open your eyes! That it will be ineffective/a figurehead is not relevant to the creators.

Another interesting thing is how those who desperately need to be part of such, are extremely ego needy. I've heard, "my family has always been involved..." (the same exact words) in power hungry insular individuals, all too often. They totally ignore (and blatantly disrespect) the teachers, who YES, I found it far more effective to work DIRECTLY with to help the kids. I'm results oriented.

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