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Power of Parents Put to the Test in Chicago Reform Experiment

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CHICAGO--The sentiments expressed by the above diarist, one of 20 anonymous council members recording their experiences for Catalyst, reflects the seriousness with which most parents and community members have approached their new roles as overseers of this city's schools.

A little more than a year ago, few of the more than 3,000 parents elected to 540 local school councils had more than a passing familiarity with Robert's Rules of Order, let alone the complexities of allocating a multimillion-dollar budget or planning school improvements.

Yet, most observers agree, the nation's most ambitious attempt to empower parents to supervise their public schools has gotten off to a remarkably smooth start.

"Under the circumstances, with so little preparation, a lack of training, and changing deadlines, it has gone exceedingly well," said Linda Lenz, editor of Catalyst, an independent publication established to document, analyze, and support the reform efforts.

"My quick response would be that it's been an enormous success," said William Ayers, professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"It's not perfect," he said. "But 6,000 citizens now sit down once or twice every month to look at their schools' problems and worry about how to correct them."

"The parents and community members on our council are family-oriented, hard-working immigrants who have a sincere desire to better the educational opportunities for their children and their neighbors' children. I see no egos at work here. I see no power struggles, no desire to manipulate or control the situation."

"What I see is a lack of information, a lack of awareness of the responsibilities involved. They are intelligent people who will have little trouble grasping concepts once they are presented. But there is so much they need to know."

Late in 1989, each school council--made up of six parents, two teacher representatives, two community representatives, and the principal--was given $1,500 to pay for training.

The district's central administration provided little of the training. Indeed, its largest training effort was a daylong session held last May that brought in experts from around the country, but occurred after the councils had made many of their most important decisions of the year.

"Shouldn't that have occurred in October?" asked Delia Torres, a member of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, one of dozens of community groups that offer training and support to the school councils. "It was too little, too late."

Dozens of community and business organizations rushed to fill in the gap.

"There was some good training, and there was some that was very marginal," said Coretta McFerren, coordinator of the People's Coalition for Educational Reform, one of several groups born during the 1987 teachers' strike and subsequent turmoil that led to the Illinois legislature's adoption of the reform plan. "But the bottom line was that there wasn't enough of it."

Ms. McFerren works for the Community and Managment Assistance Program, a business-funded venture that has placed 65 corporate volunteers in 80 schools to offer their expertise in such matters as developing a budget and selecting a principal.

Communications problems were readily apparent at a training fair organized by the district last June at Clemente High School.

More than a dozen organizations had set up information tables in a dimly lighted corner of the school's auditorium. To all appearances, the school was closed, and there were no signs directing visitors to the fair. Fewer than 10 council members showed up during a two-hour stretch.

"Local school-council people have two complaints: The first is that they have not been trained to do the job adequately, and the second is that they've been trained to death," Mr. Ayers of the University of Illinois said.

"Some people will say both simultaneously, and both are true," he said. "The resolution isn't more training, it's a different type of training. The way to learn how to govern a school is to govern it."

"As we learn, it has become more challenging," said Louise Phillips, a parent representative on the Jensen Academy and Miller School council.

"We've learned that no one is going to give us power, " she said. ''We have to earn it for ourselves."

"At City Hall, it's business as you usually find it. At Pershing Road [the district's headquarters], it's old wine in new bottles. On many [local school councils], people have put in a great deal of time and energy and been frustrated to the point of desperation by the demands, challenges, and responsibilities of school reform while being obstructed by design or effect by the public education leadership. ... I think a showdown is near."

The most common complaint heard from both council members and community leaders is that the district's central board and administration have been slow to respond to the needs of the school councils and continue to adopt rigid policies and practices that are often viewed as an attempt to reassert centralized authority.

"The central administration is probably the one entity that has the most responsibility for improving the schools," said Daniel Solis, executive director of United Neighborhood Organizations of Chicago. "Yet, they're actually the single strongest obstacle to reform."

A school-reform hot line established in the central office often gave confusing, and sometimes contradictory, responses to queries from council members, several said.

And the deadlines imposed on the councils by district officials often seemed arbitrary and allowed very little time for substantive deliberations, they said.

District officials said the deadlines were the product of inflexible state and federal mandates, and they did not penalize schools that missed them.

"The councils aren't rolling over and playing dead when the central office does something that they feel ties their hands," Ms. Lenz, the editor of Catalyst, said.

"Before people just grumbled; that was all they could do," she said. "Now they're fighting back."

District officials have taken several steps to address other criticisms that have been leveled: They lifted a freeze on discretionary funding that had been imposed earlier this year, they established a computerized information center to provide quick answers to basic queries from council members, and they agreed to test a system that will provide money directly to schools for support services previously provided by the central office.

But several other board and administrative actions have stirred controversy among council members who feel that their autonomy is being challenged.

Council members feel they should have been consulted, for example, before the administration decided to replace security guards with more costly uniformed policemen, forcing a cutback in the number of schools they could serve.

The board also imposed strict staffing ratios on schools. "Some were overstaffed," acknowledged Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, a research and advocacy organization that played a key role in drafting the Chicago reform plan. "But there was no appeals procedure, and a number feel that their staffing was unjustly cut."

The board also reignited one of the most heated controversies of the reform debate when it negotiated an agreement with the Chicago Teachers Union that will allow district officials to assign teachers who lose their positions due to enrollment declines to another school.

The reform law guarantees such teachers continued employment with the district, but the statute also explicitly grants principals the right to control the hiring of all employees for their building.

"Schools are starting now to get together and beginning to organize to fight these actions," Mr. Moore said. "Their other tasks are not as overwhelming this year, and people are much better prepared to contest the central administration's actions."

"The question of whether the pyramid has actually been inverted is still contended; it's still not settled," Mr. Ayers said. "Every issue becomes a fight about who gets to decide."

"There is the case of the interim principal who is bent on his [local school council] offering him a permanent contract. To this end, Mr. Fly Catcher spreads the honey. It is quite open, common knowledge that several times a week he wines and dines [council] parents and community reps. The staff of his school is livid, but what can be done?"

Critics of the reform law predicted upon its passage that the councils--faced with tight deadlines for developing three-year school-improvement plans, adopting school budgets, and, at half of the schools, deciding whether to retain their current principal--would be paralyzed by political infighting and that the system would quickly degenerate into chaos.

So far, only about 20 schools have experienced the kinds of disputes that escalated into protests or required intervention from outside the school.

"And if you look at the schools that have had major conflicts, some are still going on, but a number have really gotten beyond that," Mr. Moore said.

The Wells High School council--which split into two factions in March, during debate over whether to renew the contract of the school's longtime principal--is one that remains mired in a rancorous political battle that has prevented consensus and diverted attention from the school's real problems, including a 70 percent dropout rate.

At their last meeting before the summer break in June, for example, members argued about the need to approve minutes from their previous meetings, and even over whether they have each others' phone numbers.

The council at Whittier Elementary School also weathered some "rough times" after deciding not to renew its principal's contract, said Alejandro Chaparro, a parent and the council's president.

"We don't blame him for every problem," Mr. Chaparro said of the principal. "Before reform, it was hard for principals to make changes. But we felt he could have done better."

"A number of parents ... objected that the plan talked about a 'happy atmosphere' for learning and so on. Parents wanted academic emphasis and not so much 'happy' sounding things. ... This is all very interesting because I think it points to a conflict within the parents' minds. The idea that learning can be fun and happy children can be orderly and behave well seems to be a foreign idea."

The reform law was primarily designed to restructure the district's governance system, which had come to be perceived as unresponsive to students' needs and slow to implement needed changes.

The law's architects hoped that the newly empowered parents and school staff members would work together to make bold changes that would have a more direct impact on student achievement.

The law contains two provisions intended to act as the driving mechanisms for local innovation: a requirement that schools develop a three-year improvement plan that is to be monitored and revised annually, and the councils' authority to write specific goals into the contracts that they offer to their principals.

It also gives local councils the authority to approve local budgets. At many schools with high proportions of compensatory-education students, a redistribution of state funding mandated in the law has provided schools with millions of dollars to allocate locally.

Some school councils have indeed begun to tackle issues of curriculum and instruction in their school-improvement plans and budgets.

For example, at Jensen Academy, a K-8 school with a 99.7 percent black enrollment, the improvement plan adopted last year calls for expanding the "whole language" approach to the upper grades, emphasizing critical-thinking skills, and integrating African-American history into all areas of the curriculum.

Other schools have moved to abolish student tracking or eliminate testing for students in kindergarten through the 2nd grade.

But a majority of councils focused their attention on improving support services and the school environment, fixing longstanding facilities needs, improving food services, creating security patrols, and adopting new discipline policies.

"They're focusing on glaring problems that basically speak to safety in schools and the working and living conditions for the staff and kids," Mr. Moore said. "Many have made significant improvements in these areas, but it's only a precursor to dealing with the bigger issues."

Some observers said one of the biggest weaknesses in the reform law may be that it assumes that parents will be less cautious, and more willing to make radical changes, than the leaders of the old system.

Chester E. Finn Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, said he is concerned that "there is a lack of heroic vision at the building level."

"Their notions of what to change are more incrementalist than I think the situation warrants," he said.

"As long as most people think the immediate situation is basically O.K.," he said, "empowering people is not going to change very much; nobody has the impulse to be different."

"My [local school council] is mostly Hispanic, mostly women. Working with them has been an inspiration. Accommodation. Consensus. ... As the full implication of these terms washes over me, I felt the release of an energy deep inside that would sustain me through the late night hours reading, preparing, typing agendas and other materials needed for the next meeting."

The parents serving on school councils have learned to sympathize with the work of other elected officials, and that they do not always get their own way.

Council members talked of learning how to strike a balance between representing their constituents and voting their conscience.

For instance, Maria Dodinez, president of the Kanoon Magnet School council, which serves many non-English-speaking families, said she tries to avoid taking positions that would divide the school's monolingual and bilingual constituents.

But "on very important issues," she said, "I would vote my conscience."

Council members must still battle perceptions among school staff members that their efforts will prove to be harmful, rather than helpful.

A survey in June of teachers in 10 schools, for example, found that 70 percent believed schools would become politicized, and 52 percent predicted parents would interfere with school operations.

Forty-four percent reported that parent involvement was up, and 37 percent that teachers were more involved in making decisions, but only 16 percent said teacher morale had improved.

Some council members also reported that other parents have been critical of their efforts.

"I've been stopped on the street and told that 'what you are doing is nothing but junk,"' said Bertha Ruiz, a parent member of the Kanoon school council, who attributes the ill will to "misinformation."

But the bottom line, Mr. Ayers said, is that, after a little more than a year, "all of the heat and energy of the governance change has not yet translated into actual reform at the classroom level."

"That's the challenge of the second year," he added.

The councils, he said, "are going to have to reach out and try something new and stop asking permission. If they make mistakes, they can correct themselves. But being passive will get them nowhere."

The changes wrought in the first year of reform have impressed Lourdes Flores, a community representative on the Whittier Elementary council.

"Before parents couldn't even enter into the building," she said. ''Now you look around, and it's amazing. Where did they get all these parents?"

Still, Ms. Flores acknowledged, there is a growing awareness among council members that substantial improvements will not come easily.

"This year we didn't actually go all that far," she said, "but when you plant a seed, you don't get a tree the next day."

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