The historic closing of 49 elementary schools in Chicago left many parents bitter and feeling left out as they try to get involved in new schools. Yet parent engagement is essential for school improvement, and principals are faced with the challenge of building trust at schools that scored poorly on surveys of parent involvement.
In push for elected School Board, don't forget local school councils
This year, I helped hire my boss. I had the unusual opportunity to play a crucial role in deciding who would evaluate my job performance and ultimately decide whether or not I would keep my job as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools.
The opportunity to be part of the hiring process for my school’s new principal came from my position on the local school council, or what I like to call a “mini school board.” The autonomy Chicago Public Schools have given individual schools through LSCs has, I believe, been very effective in giving teachers and the community a stronger voice in education policy in Chicago.
LSCs, established in each school, are comprised of six parent representatives, two community members and three school employees (two teachers and one non-teaching representative). This committee has full authority to hire and evaluate the school’s principal, as well as make decisions on curriculum and school-based policies and help develop and approve a school budget.
This is distinct from the common practice of having an elected school board make these decisions. In most school districts, these decisions are made externally, and schools are not offered the same opportunities to make individual choices for themselves.
At the moment, my school, like others in CPS, is at risk of losing its autonomy through the weakening of LSCs, which have been under assault throughout Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s current tenure. Our current city-wide school board is appointed by the mayor, and many Chicagoans believe it’s time for the city to have an elected school board instead. Earlier this month, the question of creating an elected school board was on the ballot in many precincts, and 90 percent of Chicago voters in those precincts voted yes.
Elected board important, but so are LSCs
I don’t disagree with the importance of an elected board. I believe in the democratic process and think that there are many positives that will come from electing board members - possibly most importantly, pushing the general population to pay more attention to what is going on in public education. I am only concerned that this loud push for an elected school board is undermining the efficacy of LSCs. If Chicagoans had a better understanding that LSCs were an effective system of managing our individual schools, perhaps we would not be as anxious about a mayoral-appointed school board’s control over our local schools. The conversation needs to focus not just on electing our district-wide school board, but on how the school board and LSCs can work together more closely.
My experience on my school's LSC has largely been a positive one. Despite the large amount of time the principal selection process demands, I have been impressed with and honored by the opportunity to impact my school and advocate for my students and colleagues. I think that many teachers, parents and community members would be interested in being elected to their LSC if they realized how effective they actually are. As a council member, I have had influence on not just our school’s leadership, but also on our curriculum options, technology offerings and fundraising opportunities.
These may seem like small issues, but when looking at an individual school and its intricacies, is it not much better to rely on the judgment of people who are actually inside the school on a daily basis? Each school has its own personality - different needs, different ways of doing things, and is thus in need of governance not just from a district-wide ruling body, but from people whose lives are entwined with what goes on there. Being on an LSC may become a more desirable appointment if it meant opportunities to participate in decisions being made by the district school board as well.
LSC appointments might be more attractive if council members were offered the opportunity to meet with the school board to discuss important issues such as school closings, which most directly affect schools with higher populations of low-income students - the same schools in which it is most difficult to convince people to join their LSC.
While I am fully aware of the shortcomings of the current LSC system - the lack of proper training and guidance when it comes to selecting a principal is one of the most glaring problems - I believe that trading or weakening the LSC system for an elected school board would be disenfranchising to schools that are in desperate need of having their own voice in CPS policymaking. As a city, we will benefit from having both an elected school board and a strong LSC system.
It would be a step backwards for us to gain a city-wide voice in electing our school board, if at the same time we cut off individual schools’ autonomy and strangle the voices of parents, teachers and community members in schools that are most in need of a platform.
Kylene Young is an LSC teacher representative at Pulaski International School, where she is a middle-grades special education inclusion teacher. She is also a TeachPlus Teaching Policy Fellow.