Chicago School Reform: Giving Parents Decision-making Power

By Barbara Miner

CHICAGO — Parent Denise Ferguson remembers the day in the spring of 1990 when the Local School Council at Hefferan Elementary School met with the principal to talk about the next year’s budget. The Local School Council was only months old, part of a citywide reform effort that set up councils in each school composed of a majority of parents and given powers such as the authority to hire and fire principals. The parents, unused to having real decision-making in the school, didn’t know what to expect.

The principal suggested that discretionary school monies be used to hire a half-time choir director to teach gospel music and a full-time truant officer, according to Ferguson.

“And this was in a school that had great attendance rates, yet had maps from 1945 that still had Rhodesia, and only four operating computers,” Ferguson recalls. “Besides, our kids don’t need to learn gospel music, they get that on weeken s.”

Parents were upset at the principal’s suggestions and let him know it. “The day he passed those suggestions around and the parents said ‘Oh no,’ that’s when I realized things were about to change,” Ferguson said.

The council polled the teachers on their views and decided to spend the money in other ways, such as by hiring a new teacher for a computer lab, and new books and maps. They also made another crucial decision: to hire a new principal who would take charge at the end of the school year.

Parents having the power to make such decisions may seem a dream to many parent activists who struggle to get administrators to listen to their advice, let alone take it seriously. But such parental power is the norm in Chicago.

While some school reforms focus on changes in curriculum or teacher training, the Chicago effort targets what is generally called “governance” — the issue of who makes the decisions in schools. The reforms, considered the most ambitious of any major urban school district in the country, were mandated by state law in 1988 and were the result of widespread, long-term community organizing to improve the Chicago public schools. One major goal was to cut the powers of the Central Office, which in Chicago had earned national notoriety for its entrenched bureaucratic practices, and turn over as much decision-making as possible to the local school.

The heart of the Chicago reform is the establishment of elected Local School Councils in each of the city’s almost 600 schools. Each council has six parents, two community representatives, two teachers, the principal and, in the high schools, a student. The parents and community reps are elected by parents and community residents. The student and teacher representatives are appointed by the Board of Education following advisory elections by their peers at each school.

The verdict is still out on whether this ambitious reform effort will succeed in its ultimate goal: improving the educational performance of the approximately 440,000 students in Chicago’s public schools, roughly 90% of whom are students of color. Yet no one denies the importance of the reform or its uniqueness — that parents are the majority on a school-based council that goes beyond advising the principal and is given actual powers. Not only do the councils have the authority to hire or fire the principal, but they approve the school’s budget and school-improvement plan that outlines changes in curriculum and teaching practices.

It would be impossible in this short article to outline the many complexities and contradictions involved in the Chicago reform process, or to describe the many political players and their perspectives (see Rethinking Schools Vol. 4, #s 1 & 4).

Clearly, the reform process raises as many question as it answers. What follows is a look at how the reform has affected one school, where the council appears to have worked particularly well, and how some of the parents there view the reform.

Hefferan, a kindergarten through eighth grade elementary school, is located on the city’s West Side in a neighborhood whose appearance reflects the stereotype of a troubled inner city. Boarded up apartment buildings are common; trash and broken bottles litter the streets; groups of men who in a more humane society would be employed are huddled together at street corners passing the time.

One indication of the neighborhood’s problems: Hefferan Principal Patricia Harvey doesn’t allow outdoor recess because she cannot guarantee the children’s safety, given the number of drug dealers and alcoholics who hang out near the school.

All but one of Hefferan’s 676 students are African American, and 90% of the students are eligible for the free-or reduced-price federal lunch program.

One of the first major decisions of the Local School Council was in the spring of 1990 when it hired Harvey. A former teacher, assistant principal, and Central Office administrator, Harvey has clearly played a key role in changes at Hefferan. She instituted academic changes such as abolishing tracking systems, and worked with the staff so there could be more time for planning. For example, Harvey said that one day a week students attend special courses such as art, music, and gym so that classroom teachers have a full day for inservice training, planning, or attending workshops.

Perhaps most important, Harvey worked to establish a spirit of teamwork that emphasizes parents, community members, and school staff working together. Asked what she felt was the most important lesson learned during the almost four years that the Local School Council has been at work at Hefferan, Harvey said: “You can’t build a house of shared decision-making without a foundation of trust, acceptance, and real teamwork.”

Parents active at the school credit Harvey with helping to establish a new atmosphere. “No one can do everything by themselves, and the principal here decided that instead of leadership and followers, it would be everybody together,” said parent Cheryl Harris, who has a third and eighth grader at the school. “Ever since I’ve been here, I’ve never seen her office door closed.”

Pros and Cons

Denise Ferguson, who was president of Hefferan council for three years and who now is a staff member working on parent involvement and student services, said the council’s main benefit was that it gave parents a new role.

“Before the LSC [Local School Council], parents had no voice,” she said. “Parents were told they were welcome at the school, but were given very menial tasks….After the reform, not only could we make decisions, we could help choose the leadership.”

Ferguson said she knows from first-hand experience, however, that many Local School Councils do not run as smoothly as Hefferan’s. She has also served on a high school council and said of the experience: “It was a nightmare. It ended up holding that school hostage.” Council members didn’t respect each other, some were on personal power trips, and others had political agendas they were trying to push.

She also felt that the original legislation mandating the councils was flawed because, for example, it didn’t mandate adequate monies to train council members or give the councils a specific budget, “not even for stamps.” She also believes that council members should be paid because of the immense time commitment, and that councils must address the larger political issue of declining school budgets. “If you have 500 things to do and no budget,” she said, “it’s like having a horse you shoot in the starting gate and then say, ‘Run!’”

The council at Hefferan also faces the same nagging problem that has plagued other less-notable councils: parent burn-out and vacancies on the council. At Hefferan, for example, two of the six parent seats were unfilled in late February.

Mildred Wiley, the current president of the Local School Council at Hefferan, values the councils but fears that business and political leaders may be losing patience and may demand results faster than the councils can produce. The state law mandating the reform, for example, called for significant achievements in school performance after five years — with a threat from some forces that more drastic measures might otherwise ensue, such as institution of private school voucher plans to replace the system of public education.

“I’m just scared the state will just come in and take over,” Wiley said. “This school has undergone a distinct change, from the outside [appearance] to the curriculum in the classroom. I would hate to see an end to all the good things that we have planned.”