Who's In Charge

New Local School Council members face challenging first task: filling council vacancies

PHOTO: Erica Nanton
Erica Nanton campaigning for her Local School Council election

When Englewood community organizer Erica Nanton was out of a job and struggling a few months ago, she didn’t think she would be able to run for the Local School Council at Southside Occupational Academy. Southside is an Englewood school that teaches job skills to 16- to 21-year-old students with special needs. 

“I thought, ‘How do you [run a campaign] when you’re poor?’” she said. “It’s all these things that in your mind say, ‘I’m not the person,’ even though you deeply care, even though what you’re struggling with is probably directly connected with the very things you want to fight and why you want to run.”

Nanton was not the only person apprehensive of running. This year, more than half of the Local School Councils across the city lacked enough candidates to fill each organization’s 12 seats. Full councils comprise the principal, six parents, two community members, two teachers, and one non-teacher staff. High school councils add a student representative.

As new council members commence their two-year terms, with some starting to meet this week, many will have to address the rampant vacancies. One of their first jobs is recruiting people to fill parent and community member vacancies. They will also have to ensure that enough council members are present at meetings in order to vote on key decisions.

When there are vacancies for teacher, non-teacher staff, and student seats, the district Board of Education receives nominations from advisory polls taken by school staff and students. Last week, the board appointed people to fill those seats. When there are vacancies for parent and community member seats, the newly elected council members must handle the appointments. Across the district, roughly 560 parent and community member vacancies remain.

In a district without an elected school board, elected Local School Councils are critical channels through which residents can directly impact their schools. Each council evaluates and selects the principal, approves the school’s budget, and signs off on the two-year school improvement plan. The councils are also some of the most inclusive elected bodies in the city—there are no citizenship or education requirements for parent and community members.

Rod Wilson is a CPS-certified Local School Council instructor who travels around the city to train council members through the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, a community organizing group. He said that “when councils were first created, there were record numbers of people signing up.” According to data from CPS collected by EdWeek, 17,096 candidates ran for roughly 5,940 seats in the first year of council elections in 1989. Now, nearly 30 years later, the situation is much different.

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Chalkbeat mapped out parent and community council vacancies by school network. The West Side (Network 5) and the far South Side (Networks 12 and 13) reported the largest percentage of schools with three or more council vacancies.

Source: Chicago Public Schools

At other schools, council races can get heated. Parents at King College Prep in Kenwood clashed over choosing a new principal, and the campaign for council seats became competitive. (Seven parents and six community members ran this year.) However, many other schools’ councils see much less involvement.

Parent and Community Member Vacancies

Elaine Allensworth, Lewis-Sebring director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, has conducted research that found that when councils first emerged, they were more likely to drive effective change in higher-income communities compared to those in lower-income communities. In lower-income communities, families can experience stress from poor healthcare, unstable employment, and security concerns, she said. And, “if you have many families that are under stress and if you don’t have strong local organizations, it can be more difficult to bring people together around supporting schools.”

Similar reasons may help drive the pattern of council vacancies across the city.

When you have communities that are severely underfunded, vacancies are a reflection of that,” said Nanton. “A lot of active community members already have a job and family obligations. If they don’t have a clear idea of what it really means to run a council campaign, they could assume it’s a huge life choice that affects their family and job.”

Nanton initially thought so. She had decided to run for her council but called a friend two days before the election saying that she wanted to back out.

“I was so new to the process, I didn’t know if I was doing it right,” she said.

She ended up winning the most votes of all the candidates and being elected as a community member on the council for Southside. She said that while council elections in certain schools might require high-dollar campaigns, hers didn’t.

“I had $2, and I was able to get a poster board and write, ‘vote for me’ on it,” she said. “It ended up not being about how much money I had. It ended up being about how much I was able to listen and talk to the parents.”

Wilson, the LSC trainer, said that there might be the pattern of vacancies because elections are not promoted enough elections in communities.  To recruit for the council seats, he said that principals often put up fliers, but more advertising should be done outside of schools.

“Whether you go into schools or not, you need to know about elections if you’re going to be a community representative,” he said.

Under Illinois School Code, councils must publicize elections within the attendance boundaries of the school, by distributing notices to students and using “such other means as it deems necessary to maximize the involvement of all eligible voters.” CPS’ council election guide contains a mandatory letter that the council must distribute to all school staff and send home with the students.

It is unclear what happens to councils that don’t follow these requirements.

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When Local School Councils don’t fill their seats, they can face difficulties carrying out core responsibilities. According to the Illinois School Code, councils require a quorum of seven members to, for example, vote on budget transfers.

According to CPS election results, all the newly elected councils have at least seven members. But the vacancy list reveals that many councils have up to five open positions, and so they are on the cusp of dropping below quorum. For those schools, if a few members drop out during the two-year term or miss meetings, then the council would be unable to carry out some functions. Those councils would still be able to appoint new members or reschedule meetings, but would lag in carrying out budget transfers.

Cal Thixton has served on the council of Sabin Elementary, a magnet school in Wicker Park that serves 541 students, for six years and just retired from it. He said that Sabin’s council has continuously had parent vacancies and the parents that do serve on the council often don’t show up to meetings.

“We’re not a neighborhood school, so every parent that’s coming is traveling,” he said.

As new council members recruit to fill vacancies, they also juggle completing mandatory training that teaches them how to read budgets and carry out other core responsibilities. Outside of in-person trainings, which many council members are not attending, CPS offers online training modules.

Thixton said that new council members face a pile of information.

“I’ve always said that councils are sort of night school for the grown-ups,” he said, “because most people have no idea what’s involved in running the school.”

Local School Councils

Local School Councils are a big deal. But getting new members trained is proving difficult.

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Local school council members at a training session on Tuesday

In a classroom at Bogan High School Tuesday, trainer Jose Ortiz quizzed four Local School Council members on why they have to hold public meetings before approving their school improvement plan, a key document outlining school priorities and direction. The room fell silent.

“Because,” he answered himself, “the worst thing that the local school council could do is not consult the community.”

Ortiz’s training session illustrated the challenges that Chicago Public Schools faces in ensuring that all members of the powerful councils understand their roles and responsibilities.

The district requires those who help govern some 500-plus of its 646 schools each attend around 18 hours of in-person training, or nine online modules. But not everyone complies: Ortiz said that last week, around 10 people attended each module he taught, and on Tuesday, only four people sat through his class. Most council members take the training online, but the effectiveness of those modules is questionable, council members said.

In a district whose school board is appointed by the mayor instead of elected by city residents, the councils, as Ortiz pointed out, serve as important channels enabling residents to drive the direction of their children’s education. Normally consisting of 12 members, including the principal, teachers, parents, and community members, the councils hire and evaluate the principal, approve the budget, and help craft two-year school improvement plans for their schools.

Chicago schools have another problem with the councils: 47 percent of schools have failed to field enough candidates to fill seats, which then allows sitting council members to fill the vacancies. That means less electoral control for residents. It’s unclear if the training requirement deters people from seeking council seats.

Nevertheless, district officials said that this year they will enforce the training requirement and will contact members who fail to finish it.

“We are going to start removing people this year, but it will be after contacting them by email, through phone and then giving them an opportunity before we schedule a hearing, and then we will consider removing them,” said Guillermo Montes de Oca, director of the Office of Local School Council Relations.

As Ortiz continued with his training, he asked if members remember approving their school improvement plan in the past school year. The attendees looked at him with puzzled faces.

“Oh yes, I remember now,” said Andrea Sanchez, a council member at Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy. But, she added, “it’s just overwhelming because you’re looking at numbers and pages, especially when you’re not used to seeing it.” Sanchez has been a council member since December, but she had attended only one out of the nine mandatory training modules before Tuesday, because most of the two-hour sessions were held in various locations throughout the city far from her home.

According to the Illinois School Code, council members must finish all modules within six months of taking office, so newly elected members who take office on July 1 have until Dec. 31 to complete the modules. CPS has never removed a council member for not finishing the training, said Guillermo Montes de Oca. However, that’s changing.

This year, CPS has also been encouraging council members to finish the modules by July 31, he said, because “if you’re going to be seated, discussing the budget and everything, you need to be informed.”

Sanchez said she didn’t know know about the six-month deadline until Tuesday. She wishes the nine modules would be held all at once at her school. “The information in the modules should be given to us right away [upon joining the council],” she said.

Montes de Oca said that the Office of Local School Council Relations encourages council members to take the training online. Especially because the office only offers a few modules per month, to meet the July 31 deadline, council members would have to take most of their training online.

But the attendees Tuesday seemed to prefer the in-person trainings . Denishia Perkins, a council member at Shields Middle School for almost two years, said that she had taken all the training modules online, but they “didn’t do much for me.” The online training consists of clicking through slides of bullet-pointed information and then taking a short quiz at the end of each module.

“It’s so possible to get elected and not know about this stuff,” Perkins said. So she decided to attend the in-person training on Tuesday.

Sanchez said of Ortiz’s class, “It felt one-on-one, and he’s really explaining it to you.”

The trainings are not the only impediment to filling local school council seats.

A representative from the parent group Raise Your Hand told the Sun-Times that people may not want to run for a council position because “people are a little frustrated at the weakening of the local school council.” Currently, 50 percent of principals’ evaluations rely on CPS’ data and metrics, when previously the evaluations relied solely on the council members’ judgment.

Sanchez said that the work of councils are just not advertised enough, and many parents already are involved with jobs or other organizations.

“I don’t think the parents know that (Local School Councils are) that important,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t know either.”

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000