By DAN BARON
Sullivan High School: an interim report on Chicago's local school councils
Late in the afternoon on June 20, 1990, many of the student lockers were being cleaned out at Roger C. Sullivan High School in Chicago. The school was silent, unpopulated by 1,206 students who usually fill it. Classes were over and would not resume until September. Still, for this school, like so many others in Chicago, a crucial experiment in education had really just begun. That night, a group of about 20 people parents, community members, teachers and the principal attended a meeting of the Sullivan Local School Council (LSC). The meeting, which was open to the public, marked completion of the first year of the LSC experience the cornerstone of Chicago's school reform movement.
Last October, Sullivan High School in Rogers Park on the city's far north side joined 539 other Chicago public schools in selecting a Local School Council (LSC). In elections held in each school district, parents chose six parent representatives, communities chose two community members, and teachers selected two teachers to serve on the local council for two-year terms. Principals automatically sit on the council. The primary responsibilities of LSCs are to adopt a school improvement plan and budget and to choose (or retain) a principal.
With the advent of the LSCs, Chicago became the testing ground for what has been called a "radical experiment" in public education. That experiment is now entering its second year. How is it going? Can any conclusions be reached? Given Chicago's diversity, it would be hard to find a typical school or school council, but here is a progress report from Sullivan and some insights from its LSC members.
As the 1989-90 school year ended, many people close to the situation at Sullivan acknowledged the huge, even overwhelming, challenge of community-based school reform. How can people who have had no experience as public officials effectively reform school policy in a system that most feel is in disarray? Nevertheless, the Sullivan LSC had taken the first important steps of forming a council and beginning to plan for the future. Council members remained hopeful and committed as they faced the next phase in the complex mission of improving their school.
Sullivan opened in 1926 as a junior high; in 1933 it was convened into a senior high school. For some residents of Rogers Park, the 60-plus years of history give Sullivan a rich tradition. Others comment on the wear and tear the years have wrought on the building and mention that it has not been painted in more than 10 years.
Sullivan has a special approach to education: the Piadea Program. "Piadea" is a Greek word that means "the upbringing of the child." The program is based on the educational theories of Mortimer Adler. Wel-known as an author and philosopher, Adler published The Piadea Proposal in 1982. What sets the program apart is its emphasis on classical texts and a more active style of teaching that features lecturing, "coaching" (supervised practice) and guided discussions. About 19 percent of the Sullivan student body comes from outside of Rogers Park to participate in this schoolwide program. (Their parents are eligible to serve on the Sullivan LSC, although none currently do so.) Teachers who are interested
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in teaching the Piadea way also apply to Sullivan from different schools around the city. Dr. Robert Brazil, the principal at Sullivan, is well-known as a proponent of this program.
Sullivan High School is also a member of the Illinois Alliance of Essential Schools, a joint program of the State Board of Education and the University of Illinois College of Education. The alliance is based on principles developed by former Harvard educator Theodore Sizer. Alliance schools emphasize laboratories and seminars rather than the traditional lecture method. According to Brazil, there's a strong correlation between the Piadea Program and the alliance. Both focus on the "teacher as coach and the student as worker."
Brownstone was not alone among parent representatives on the LSC in criticizing Sullivan's administration. Several but not all of the parent reps voiced similar concerns about the school's commitment to all of its students. Nevertheless, achievement test scores have gone up significantly since the Piadea Program was implemented at Sullivan, according to Brazil.
Do these reflect the progress of the "average or failing kid" that many parents talk about? Statistics compiled by Designs for Change, a nonprofit research and advocacy group in Chicago, show that median scores for Sullivan rank slightly higher than the city average in math and slightly lower in reading. In both cases, the Sullivan average is well below national norms. The school's dropout rate is also slightly higher than average for Chicago public high schools, according to the city's Department of Research, Evaluation and Planning. Still, this data neither confirms nor denies Brazil's claims about academic success at Sullivan. It does suggest that Sullivan has a long way to go and has a lot in common with other Chicago public schools.
For Sullivan and other schools one of the questions seems to be "Whose data can be believed?" Nonprofit research groups, the city, and the school frequently disagree about research methods and conclusions.
Every LSC member at Sullvian agreed that communication is a problem. Many in the Rogers Park community don't know much about the school's unique programs, and they often feel intimidated by an administration that has shaped and defined these programs. On the other hand, many give credit to the principal and teachers. "The staff at this school is very committed," said Mary Claire Peceny, a longtime resident who frequently attends LSC meetings. "It's just that we have to do something to make the school known in the Rogers Park area. I hear nothing about it."
How can an LSC encourage parents and community members to get more involved in school issues? Teachers at Sullivan have been trying to bring parents into the school for years. Now parents and community members have more power than ever before, but many remain virtually silent on school issues.
"My goal is to bring five people to come to our meetings on a regular basis," said Carolyn Welcome-Castro. Chosen by her colleagues on the LSC to chair the council, Castro has lived in Rogers Park for nine years and has a son at Sullivan. "We must get parents into the schools or we'll fall on our face," she said. Sullivan LSC members have discussed ways to make this happen, including fundraisers, better publicity for LSC actions and just being at the school to greet parents when report cards are picked up.
During their first year, Sullivan's LSC members struggled with many of the same issues faced by LSCs around the city. One of these was how to use power effectively for the good of the school. Parents in Chicago are not used to having much of a say in the workings of their public schools. Nor are teachers and administrators used to dealing with this kind of parental and community authority. Long before policy matters are resolved, Chicago's LSCs including Sullivan must face the potentially volatile relationship between different factions on the council and in the school.
That is a job far more challenging and complex than making a few decisions about school policy. The LSC is kind of a microcosm for the whole school. Does the school achieve the goals of the community? Are the different groups on the council working together to make the system work? Will the LSC act as an administrative or policymaking body? The Chicago School Reform Act implicitly poses these questions and asks the LSCs to answer them.
"It's friendly on the surface," said Carol Long, a parent member of the Sullivan LSC. Long, who works the night shift at a post office, has lived in Rogers Park for three years and has three daughters at Sullivan. "Down under, though, the teachers and administrators suspect the parents. And parents are not to blame for everything."
Neither are teachers to blame for everything, as several teachers at Sullivan pointed out. "Teachers get very little recognition, and then some parents come in and tell you what to do," said
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Eileen Barton, a longtime remedial English teacher who is also the faculty liaison for the Alliance of Essential Schools program at Sullivan. "Still, parents have the insight that comes with being parents. And teachers definitely have a long-term commitment to the school. The sounding out process of the LSC is important for all of us. It is time to develop trust and vision."
One teacher commented that the LSC should have at least one Hispanic; currently, it is composed of five blacks and three whites. In addition, three parent representatives vacated their spots last year for reasons that included the demands of work, a student dropping out and a student graduating. With only three parent reps currently on the 11-member council, parents don't have the power to vote as a majority; with six, they do. Still, it's not that simple. There's no evidence that parents at Sullivan have formed a strong coalition that can help push forward changes in the school.
"This first year was a learning year for all of us," said Jim Strickler, a community representative on the Sullivan LSC who has lived in Rogers Park for two years and works as a textbook editor in Chicago. "We're working for a good base to build on. And we have a dedicated group of people."
Ultimately, the LSC at Sullivan as at other schools will look to test scores, graduation rates, attendance rates and dropout rates to help measure its success. Right now it's much too early to quantify the success or failure of a movement that just completed its first year. But long before specific policies are changed, the actions of the Sullivan LSC will have an impact. 'The importance of education filters down to kids," said Carolyn Welcome-Castro. "If education matters to adults, kids see that."
For many LSC members, education matters so much that they go to three or four meetings a week. They often feel overworked and exhausted. And, of course, all of their school council work goes unpaid. Three of the parent representatives at Sullivan were combining long hours on the LSC with the responsibilities of single parenthood, and several members said that they would not run for a position again if being a council member continues to demand so much of their time.
Nevertheless, several LSC members indicated that the more the group works together, the better the members will be able to manage their responsibilities. "This is a group learning process," said Carolyn Welcome-Castro. "One time we had to spend two-and-a-half hours on a paragraph in a document. We need a workshop on goal setting." Others in the LSC spoke about possible training sessions on such things as budget matters, working together as a group and running a meeting.
One way to improve the effectiveness of the LSC, according to several members, is to participate in group training sessions. Although many of the LSC members have taken part in workshops, the group has not yet been trained together. Group training on key issues like setting a budget could give everyone a common base of knowledge and a chance to work together as a unit.
Dozens of organizations around the city have emerged during the last two years to provide training for the LSCs. These include Designs for Change, the Chicago Panel on Public School Finance and Policy, and Parents United for Responsible Education. In contrast, the Chicago Board of Education and the central administration under Supt. Ted Kimbrough have offered very little cooperation or information to the LSC at Sullivan, especially on the basics: putting together a school improvement plan and a budget.
Still, no amount of cooperation and training could have prepared Sullivan and other LSCs for the deadlines they faced during the 1989-90 school year. During that time they had to come up with their school improvement plans and budgets. In addition, half of the LSCs retained (or selected) a principal. The other half, including Sullivan, will make a decison about a principal during the 1990-91 school year, with a deadline of April 15.
Sullivan's school improvement plan made it through the LSC, but not before it was ripped by a vocal group of parents. These parents, who said they weren't given enough time to review the plan, had also criticized the school for failing to meet the needs of all of its students. Under the reform law, Chicago principals are supposed to design the school improvement plan and recommend it for the consideration of the LSC. According to several council members at Sullivan, they had only two days to review the 52-page school improvement plan after trying to meet a deadline that was changed four times by Chicago's central school administration. The Sullivan plan has 20 goals on a wide range of issues, including attendance rates, test proficiency, graduation rates and parental involvement.
"The plan is not realistic or manageable, and we didn't have enough time. The school administration must work better with the parents," said Anitra Ward, a Sullivan LSC parent representative who lives in Rogers Park and has a son at Sullivan. (Ward and her children lived on the south side, but they moved when her son wanted to complete his education at Sullivan.) Ward is an adminstrator at one of the City Colleges of Chicago. "Our policy has to be, no matter what the circumstances are, to teach our kids until they are at acceptable levels," said Ward. "As members of the council, we must have our say."
Anitra Ward has to be especially aware of the kinds of problems LSCs face. She was chosen by her peers on the LSC to represent Sullivan on the local High School Subdistrict Council, and she was recently elected president of that council. District Councils "act as a sounding board for LSCs," said Ward, "helping them find out what is happening at other schools." Ward is also on the School Board Nominating Commission, whose sole responsibility is to present a list of potential candidates for the Chicago Board of Education to Mayor Richard M. Daley. The permanent school board, which will replace the current interim board, will probably be selected by early fall.
Many LSC members complained that the Sullivan school improvement plan is a vague rehash of what the school is already doing and that the LSC is only mentioned a few times in the document. Nevertheless, the plan does provide a base from which the LSC can address school issues. "We did need more time to put it together," said Jim Strickler. "But it's still good to have all of the information in one document. Many people in the school's administration put in long hours to get it finished. Next year we'll have to be more visionary and get more input from the community."
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The second key area that LSCs can influence is the school budget. How much control do they actually have? The law is specific," said Fred Hess of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance. "Next year [the 1990-91 school year], the schools have budget control over everything. This year they primarily had control over discretionary expenses like Chapter I money because of previous laws. The first year was designed to be a planning year."
Chapter I money of the state school aid formula is allotted to each school according to its number of low-income students. The Chicago School Reform Act gave schools considerable flexibility over how they can use those funds. Sullivan plans to use its Chapter I money to buy more computer terminals as part of a "Writer's Workbench" program, designed to strengthen student writing and grammar skills. Sullivan also plans to hire two teachers for the program. The total cost is about $56,000.
At the end of the 1989-90 school year, LSC members at Sullivan were unsure about what they will have to spend in the future. Currently, the budget at Sullivan is about $5 million.
"We have no idea how much money is coming into the school next year. We're waiting to find out what our next installment of the Chapter I money will be," said David Bice, a community representative on the Sullivan LSC who has lived in Rogers Park for 10 years. Bice, who works for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and has a background in economic development, heads the Budget Committee. "LSC members feel they have a lack of control over the money; every little amount is earmarked for given categories," he said. That may change. "People don't understand the funding formula," said Joy Noven, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Change, which trains a wide range of LSCs on many issues. "But the school improvement plan should define where a school puts its resources. The budget is tied to the school plan. Before, you couldn't understand the budget; it wasn't readable."
According to Don Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, "The central administration will keep telling the LSCs they don't have much flexibility, but it's just a question of the LSCs gaining the knowledge they need to make changes." Moore also pointed out that even with complete control of the budget, LSCs will have to work closely with teachers and other school employees. "That [budget control] will have to be carried out in the context of collective bargaining agreements and laws," he said.
Thus Sullivan and other LSCs must not only decide how to spend the money; they must figure out how to get it from the system. Currently, according to the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance, about 70 percent of a typical Chicago public school budget goes to salaries; the remaining 30 percent covers a wide range of needs, including supplies, textbooks, furniture, equipment and food.
During its first year the two biggest problems for the Sullivan LSC appeared to be unreasonable deadlines and lack of training. Can these problems be overcome? At the citywide level the Chicago Panel and other groups have been pressuring the central administration to set reasonable deadlines for next year. At Sullivan, the LSC must train itself to deal with the budget.
The third area of LSC power lies in their ability to select and retain principals. On this issue Sullivan LSC members appeared reticent and uncertain. Indeed, many LSCs during the first year seemed reluctant to challenge the authority of popular incumbent principals like Sullivan's Dr. Brazil. The difference is that the councils now have some choice in the matter. "LSCs don't have to feel locked into their situation," said Moore, pointing out that even during the first year of school reform the councils were getting "a wide range of applications from qualified candidates for principal."
But at its June 20 meeting, the Sullivan LSC had a more immediate problem one that other LSCs have also encountered. There were three vacant spots on the council, three applicants for the positions at the meeting and no procedures for filling the vacancies. "The LSC has the authority to pick the replacement, but there are no guidelines. It's up to them,'' says Moore. It took very little time for the council to agree on what it wanted: a system that would do justice to Sullivan's needs and be fair to both current and potential applicants. Then it laid down the guidelines to replace lost members so that a complete council would be ready for the new school year.
On a table in the meeting room a stack of books from a Piadea seminar proclaimed some heavy-duty reading assignments the Declaration of Independence, Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery and Basic Political Writings by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. "You read a book differently if you know you have to talk," said Brazil. "Our classes are open, and it's good to have disagreement, even to have things unsettled." The same might be said of the LSC experience as Chicago school reform heads into its second year. The initial assignments are in; the councils are formed; the dialogue has begun. Now, Sullivan and other LSCs around the city must learn how to focus on specifics while developing the vision and the power to answer the educational needs of their communities.
Dan Baron is a Chicago writer specializing in community issues. He was formerly editor of Disclosure, published by the National Training and Information Center.
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