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.
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Deadline extended to run for local school councils
Faced with a dearth of candidates, CPS has for the second time extended the deadline to register to run in next month’s local school council elections. Candidates now have until March 23rd to file. So far, only 2,060 candidates have been recruited for more than 6,800 open seats in the April 18th elections.
CPS notes, however, that more candidates have already filed this year than at the same point in the last election in 2008.
“Serving on one’s Local School Council is the most important role a parent or community member can have in supporting their schools and students,” CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said in a statement. “People throughout Chicago want to see their schools and students succeed. This is their opportunity to demand the change needed to create a high quality education for every child in every community in our city.”
The board has extended the deadline in previous years and insists that the decision is unrelated to a critical letter sent by an umbrella group of 27 parent and grassroots community groups, the Coalition to Strengthen Local School Councils. The group wrote a letter to Brizard demanding a two-week extension of the candidate filing deadline. The letter asserts that “low candidate turnout reflects your personal lack of forceful visible leadership in encouraging candidacy or recognizing the existence and contribution of Local School Councils since you took office.”
The letter suggests that CPS has hindered grassroots recruitment efforts by failing to collaborate with independent groups and by requiring a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain school-by-school candidate data, when this information had been routinely distributed in the past.
Recruiting for the upcoming election has been difficult, says Wanda Hopkins, assistant director of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE). “People are not overwhelmingly willing to run for LSCs because of the current administration from the mayor to the board of trustees,” she says. “People have no hope. They don’t think that what they do will matter.”
In the 2010 election, the district spent $25,000 for community groups to do recruitment, according to a district spokeswoman, but "because of our $700 million deficit this fiscal year, we were unable to provide grants to these organizations."
To build interest this year, the CPS Office of Local School Council Relations held four community rallies, used social media and ran ads on buses and billboards, among other actions. CPS has also displayed posters and made nomination forms available in community locations such as City Hall, aldermanic offices, libraries, and churches.
Don Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, believes CPS recruitment efforts fell short. “The way you recruit people is not through rallies,” says Moore. “You have to talk to parents and talk to people who are on LSCs and encourage them to run again. It’s an organizing process. Just to hold a rally is not going to do it.”
Michael Brunson, recording secretary of the Chicago Teachers Union, says the efforts haven’t been apparent.
“In the past couple months, have you noticed many advertisements? I haven’t,” says Brunson. “What I have heard on the radio are advertisements for charter schools and turnarounds and how great they are. There’s been no exposure of LSCs in the media.”
The CTU has sought this year to work more closely with parent and community groups opposed to closings and turnarounds, which affect LSCs. Brunson says they are being "systematically disempowered."
“You have an administration that seems to feel that in order to implement school reform they have to hold the principal more accountable, so they should have the power to hire the principal,” Brunson says. “That’s directly in opposition to LSCs’ power.”
Principal hiring is one of three major responsibilities of LSCs, which also approve spending of discretionary money and develop school improvement plans.
But over the years, principal hiring and budgetary power has been whittled away as successive administrations take tougher action against low-achieving schools that are on probation; currently, 250 schools, according to the district.
Schools on probation no longer have final authority over their school improvement plan or discretionary budget, which must be approved by the district. If the district removes a principal at a school on probation, the LSC can no longer select a new principal until the school comes off probation.
The district’s move to do more turnarounds affects LSCs’ power as well. At turnaround schools, the LSC does not control principal selection.
But at Morgan Park High School, LSC representative Peggy Goddard questions whether the model of having LSCs choose a principal is viable. Goddard has gone before the Board of Education at its regular meetings to complain about the lack of principal candidates. Morgan Park went through two principal searches in 2011. At one point, both of the top two candidates ultimately failed the district’s eligibility process for principals.
The council kicked off the new year by starting a third search.
“I do not think having local school councils choose the principal is the best way to do it,” says Goddard, who has served on the council for 12 years. “A local school council is not always made up of people who have ever hired or interviewed people. Sometimes they come to the table with their own agenda, and what they think will make a good principal, that may or may not be based on any kind of education background.”