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Experts Say Fewer Local School Councils Means Less Community Involvement

Local school councils are out, Renaissance 2010 is in, and the fight against the machine has only begun. Activists and experts have taken a stand to bring back public schools and public involvement in education; they said they are fighting for their voice.

Pauline Lipman, policy studies professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the elimination of local school councils are negatively affecting South Side and West Side communities by taking away their involvement in public education.

“In the Austin neighborhood particularly, this is a major issue,” she said. “The charter schools in Austin are public schools; the people who live in Austin are the public, and they no longer have any say of what happens in the community, and this is happening all over Chicago.”

In June 2004, Mayor Richard M. Daley launched Renaissance 2010 with the goal of increasing the number of high quality educational options in communities across Chicago by 2010 by opening 100 new schools. In order to open these turnaround schools, CPS would have to shut the doors on schools with low performance.

To date, Chicago has 94 Renaissance schools, with plans to open seven more in the Fall of 2010, said Malon Edwards, spokesman for CPS. He said each of the Renaissance schools works hard to achieve community involvement.

Edwards said Renaissance 2010 schools are still required by law to have governing boards that include parental and community involvement.

Austin High School was one of those schools. It closed four years ago, and in its place are two charter schools: Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy and VOISE Academy High School, and one performance school, Austin Polytechnical School. These are three examples of schools in a community that do not have local school councils, Lipman said.

In 1988, the Illinois General Assembly created Chicago’s local school councils, which are elected, decision-making councils that have significant power over each of Chicago’s schools, such as the ability to hire and fire principals, plan the schools curriculum and oversee all activities for the school, similar to what the school board does.

At the high school level, the local school council consists of 12 voting members, including the principal, six parent representatives, two community representatives, two teacher representatives and one student representative.

However, Chicago Public Schools officials, who are hand-selected by Mayor Daley, have never been supporters of the councils, Lipman said. In an October 2007 speech, Rufus Williams, then-CPS board president, said it was one of his administration’s main goals to eliminate local school councils.

“Not all local school councils are bad, but this is a flawed system,” Williams said in the speech. “There are many examples of adults getting in the way of the progress of children. Those of us who are responsible for the schools simply ask that we have the authority because we have the accountability for them.”

Williams said CPS is known for its leading reform.

“But this is one of the reform efforts that not one group, system or area has bothered to replicate,” he said. “We are the only system in the world that has this kind of governing structure; it must be fixed; it must be changed so that we can best operate our system for the benefit of our children.”

Rosemaria Genova, press secretary for Marilyn Stewart, president of Chicago Teachers Union, said it is these sentiments and non-transparent ideas that are hurting community involvement in public education.

“We are losing the public in Chicago Public Schools,” she said. “We have too much privatization going on in Chicago, and it is taking away any and all parent and community involvement.”

Julie Woestehoff, executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education said CPS is not fighting for community involvement, and they never have.

“Taking away local school councils drives a stake right through the heart of community involvement,” she said. “As a parent organization, we will continue to stand up against CPS’s total disregard for community and parent involvement. These are our children; we should have a say in their education.”

Woestehoff noted that most of the schools which have closed due to Renaissance 2010 are on the city’s South and West Sides.

“They are closing schools in neighborhoods and communities that are already struggling with being heard and finding their voice,” she said. “This is disempowering people who are historically disempowered anyway.”

Mike Klonsky, director of Small School Workshops, a non-profit organization, said in a community like Austin, the district’s complete disregard for the community has been devastating.

Klonsky, a professor in the College of Education at DePaul University, said in a community like Austin where parent involvement is limited, the loss of a local school council is immense.

“These new schools for the most part are run by private boards that are usually made up by business people,” he said. “There is little to no input from the community, and that must change.”

“The governing boards serve as local school councils, to ensure community involvement,” he said.

But Klonsky disagreed. He said Renaissance 2010 was originally created to open 100 new schools in Chicago and take a “serious stance on the value of our education.”

“But what Renaissance 2010 has turned into is basically a school-closing initiative,” he said. “The closing of schools means the end of local school councils, which means a lack of community voice and community power over how schools and education should operate.”

Check out these related stories from Chicago Public Radio WBEZ: Daley Says School Closings Are Necessary and Education Reporter Linda Lutton Talks School Closings with Host Melba Lara.

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