School Governance Councils: Making Parents Partners
VICTOR DE LA PAZ
October 04, 2009
For two years in a row, Hartford Public Schools have achieved the highest rate of improvement on the Connecticut Mastery Test.
In addition to being the fastest-rising city in the state in terms of student achievement, this is the first time since the conception of state testing eight years ago that Hartford has had consecutive years of significant improvement on state assessments.
On an objective basis, something very different must be happening in Hartford's schools; something good. Connecticut's achievement gap between poor and affluent school systems — the largest in the nation — is closing for Hartford's students.
Yet, I regularly find myself defending our school reform efforts and speaking up for the systemic changes that we believe improved the test results. I'm used to defending our decisions to a parent weary of all the changes or to a teacher who feels we are pushing too hard. "Hartford's schools are on the rise, making serious gains, so what are you upset about?" Some critics complain that we are moving too fast and not bringing enough people into the reform. That's why we're forming school governance councils.
This fall, we are forming 28 of these school-level councils with up to 12 members each — made up of parents (up to half of the membership), community members, staff, the principal and, in higher grades, a student representative.
At every autonomous school — schools achieving the "proficient" level or above — these groups will have seven key duties as outlined by the Hartford Board of Education. The most important duties include approving the school's budget for the coming year, developing a school accountability plan based on the data of that specific school, and interviewing and recommending a principal for their school from a list of qualified candidates provided by the district in the event of a vacancy.
It is hard to overestimate the power and responsibility that will be conferred to these councils.They are real school-home-community partnerships that will take responsibility and hold themselves accountable for the school's success, with some oversight from district administrators when needed.
Research confirms the value of involving parents and community members in the schools. The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas, has published many studies showing that students with involved parents — regardless of income — get better grades and eventually go on to post-secondary education. Research shows further that higher-performing schools effectively involve families and the community in decision-making.
Have we at Hartford Public Schools been guilty of not bringing more people into the reform? Perhaps. But when only 29 percent of the high school freshmen are graduating — as was the case in 2006 — there is very little time to ask for ideas on how to eradicate that iniquity. The graduation rate wasmore than 41 percent for the class of 2009 and is headed toward 50 percent — and yet there is still every reason to be unsatisfied.
Entering the third year of our reform, we continue to feel the sense of urgency needed to continue and accelerate progress. In fact, we know more now about what needs to change than we did before. But we also need to focus on sustainability — on building a system of schools that will continue to perform highly five, 10 and 15 years from now. School governance councils simultaneously make strides to sustain reform as well as involve the community.
With school governance councils, we are trying to harness the energy and obvious passion for the city that many parents and others share. The only way these councils will be successful is if city residents understand the importance of this opportunity and volunteer their time at their children's schools. After participating in this vital work and understanding the complexities of steering schools into a unified direction, they will see that there is no such things as moving too quickly to improve Hartford's schools.
Governance councils present an opportunity for school-level stakeholders to put their differences aside and work together. Unfortunately, they can also present a platform for more of the divisiveness and vitriol that has characterized Hartford decision-making in the past. Although cynics are assured that the latter scenario will prevail, we have a higher opinion of Hartford residents and know they will choose the right path. Our children's future depends on it.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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