Parents at Lowell High School worried that incoming students were falling through the cracks as they made the transition to the 2,600-student school here. So they hit on an idea: match up every 9th grader with an older student as a mentor.
“We said, we can’t double the number of counselors,” said Richard Shrieve, who has a son at Lowell. “But we have a bunch of 17- and 18-year-olds who know the ropes, and they can talk to these kids better than adults can.”
Last fall, all 650 of the school’s freshmen were assigned mentors through the program, which is part of Lowell High’s improvement plan. A teacher and a social worker on the staff coordinate the recruitment and training of the mentors.
Such examples of shared decisionmaking and site-based management are not unusual in the San Francisco Unified School District, where the two leadership principles are central to the 56,000-student district’s strategy for raising student performance.
Administrators have honed an annual planning process that gives wide latitude to each school’s community in deciding how best to use its resources—so long as the choices made are aimed at meeting agreed-upon academic goals. Mr. Shrieve calls it “channeled energy.”
The approach has its challenges. Some local leaders doubt that all schools, particularly those serving low-income populations, are able to elicit high levels of community involvement. In addition, tight budgets have meant that many of the decisions that schools make simply are about what to cut.
But few oppose the process. Many say it not only works well in a city where people like to have their say, but that it’s also sound education policy. Since 2003, San Francisco has made the greatest gains among California’s seven largest districts in the state’s system for rating academic performance.
“As long as you have some accountability, and some monitoring of how they’re using their resources, then I think most of the time schools make very good decisions,” said Arlene Ackerman, the departing superintendent who was the chief architect of the site-planning model.
California has long required that schools have committees that include staff and community members, along with principals, to inform school policy. San Francisco has sought to go a step further by having site councils act more like policymakers.
The empowerment comes in the yearly drafting of academic plans—documents that spell out how schools intend to meet such districtwide goals as ensuring student safety and closing the achievement gaps between students from different socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.
District leaders spell out what each plan must cover, such as teacher training and special education services. Programs must be justified with student data. Councils also are required to hold public meetings to hear from the larger school community as they draft their plans.
“It’s more grassroots, in that they’re coming up with their observations and their strategies,” said Myong Leigh, the district’s director of policy and planning. “It’s within a system of bounded discretion, but a lot of the problem-solving happens at the school site.”
To make the system work, the district had to overhaul the way it allocates resources to schools, adopting what’s known as weighted-student funding. Each school’s budget is determined by its total enrollment, plus additional money for students with particular needs, like those learning English.
The method allows more flexibility than the traditional practice, in which schools get specific numbers of staff positions—not money—based on their overall enrollment. Schools can decide whether they want to spend money on a teacher, a librarian, or computers. (“‘Weighted’ Funding of Schools Gains Favor,” Nov. 3, 2004)
To be sure, schools in San Francisco still have plenty of mandates. They all must use the same state-adopted textbooks, for instance, and cannot go above state-imposed class-size limits. The district also requires the lowest-performing schools to take part in certain programs. (Read the related story, “Kinder and Gentler,” this issue.)
Still, many school leaders here say they are able to tailor their programs to their needs. For example, George Washington Carver Elementary School has opted to hold on to its paraprofessionals, while other schools have traded many of those positions for other priorities.
Emily Wade-Thompson, the school’s principal, said doing so made sense at Carver. About 70 percent of its students live in poverty, and the use of paraprofessionals to work with teachers allows for a classroom ratio of about 10 adults for every child.
1. School site councils, including the principal, teachers, and parents, attend training by the district on the process of drafting an annual improvement plan.
2. Each school gets its budget figures for the next academic year, based on its enrollment and students’ special needs.
3. In a pair of community meetings, each school presents its performance data and budget numbers, and gathers public comment on priorities for spending its resources.
4. School councils incorporate that information into their plans and present them to teams of central-office administrators for review.
5. If changes are recommended, the plans go back to the site councils for revision, after which the central office approves the final documents.
SOURCE: San Francisco Unified School District
“Every school is unique,” said Ms. Wade-Thompson. “But for Carver, putting our money into people resources seemed the best way to go.”
School site councils use different techniques to gather opinion and feedback on such decisions. Many send home surveys. A popular method at the community meetings held to draft their plans is to have parents identify priorities in breakout sessions, and then ask them to vote for their top concerns.
It was parent input, in fact, that led the site council at Lowell High to propose a student-to-student mentoring program. Mr. Shrieve, who is the vice chairman of the school’s council, said its work seemed perfunctory before the district put the academic-planning process in place.
“The principal pretty much decided everything,” said Mr. Shrieve, who also sits on a districtwide parent-advisory committee. Now, he added, “with the schools I’ve been associated with, the council is the policymaking body for the school.”
While that may be the ideal, many activists in the city say it’s often not the case. Sandra Fewer, who directs a parent-organizing group and serves on the executive committee of the citywide PTA, said the academic-planning process doesn’t guarantee community engagement.
Typically, she said, schools serving higher-income families get the most parent involvement in deciding how to spend money. She recommends that school leaders be trained in how to make their schools inviting to a broader section of the population.
“Since they’ve had the weighted-student formula and site-based budgeting, there are more parents involved in it,” Ms. Fewer said of the planning process. “Before, it was a complete mystery to 100 percent of parents. And now, I’d say it’s a complete mystery to 80 percent or 90 percent.”
Dennis Kelly, the president of United Educators of San Francisco, an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, said having schools decide their budgets can get ugly when cuts are made. Employees not represented on site councils, such as “nonclassified” staff members, sometimes are the first to go, he said.
“It’s a wonderful process when you have money,” said Mr. Kelly, whose union has threatened to strike this month. “But when you’re taking money away, it becomes a cannibalistic process that is destructive to morale in the schools, and rends the fabric of the institution.”
While similar debates occur in other districts that have pursued decentralization, San Francisco deserves credit for keeping the focus on academic-improvement planning, said Marguerite Roza, a senior fellow at the Center for Reinventing Public Education, located at the University of Washington in Seattle.
“I think they’ve got it right,” she said. “This idea was sort of pushed by some business-thinking people who said, ‘If we bring this process into education, it will work.’ But a lot of places forgot to connect it to the core thing, which is student learning.”
Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as S.F. School Councils Help Chart Improvement Course