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A grassroots approach to school reform

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A city-county councilman and a grassroots educational reform group are promoting a plan they say can correct a power imbalance within Indianapolis Public Schools that causes unnecessary adversity between families and schools.

A report released Aug. 15, "Local School Councils: Can Democracy Save IPS?" suggests hyper-localized control of schools can "more consistently raise test scores, and promote remedies to 'social toxins' such as poverty, alienation, unemployment, violence, inadequate housing and health care" better than plans offered in other reform strategies.


Councilman José Evans, who represents Indy's 1st District, joined report authors John Harris Loflin of the Black & Latino Policy Institute and Alex Sage of the Education-Community Action Team in their assertion that Local School Councils (LSCs), a concept they credited with revitalizing Chicago Public Schools, could provide similar benefits to Indianapolis.

"With The Mind Trust plan out and the IPS plan, there needs to be more options that actually work for inner-city schools and schools that are failing," Evans said.

"Through this plan we came out with, it looks like a great opportunity for Indianapolis to improve its educational system. It worked in Chicago, so why can't it work in Indianapolis?"

Chicago's councils include six parents, two community representatives (elected by peers), the principal (whom the council hires), two teachers (whom the principal hires, also elected by their peers to the council), one non-teaching staff member, and (for high schools) one student. Slight modifications are made for magnet schools.

Development of the councils has not been without growing pains or challenges. After enacting the framework that first made the reforms in Chicago possible in 1988, the Illinois legislature tweaked the law in 1995 to, as the report's authors note, enable increased oversight and external accountability of the councils.

The report casts the councils as providing a "mechanism through which the school remains accountable ... where stakeholders may discuss their concerns on a regular basis, instead of simply 'speaking with their feet' once a year," the report said, referencing the theory that consumer dissatisfaction will condemn unsustainable schools because parents won't send their children back to them.

"We need more community involvement in our schools, not less," said Deputy Mayor of Education Jason Kloth, noting that he still needed to do an in-depth reading of the new report.

"The purpose of the ongoing community conversations [see side bar] is to better understand what that role might be. We're pleased to see Councilor Evans, the Black & Latino Policy Institute and the Education-Community Action Team putting forth their ideas for the future of our schools."

Without offering an explicit endorsement of the proposal, John Althardt, a spokesman for IPS, acknowledged the importance of an engaged community.

"Our focus is to ensure all Indianapolis Public Schools" children have access to all the resources our schools, teachers, parents and community can provide so each student reaches their full potential," Althardt wrote in an emailed response to a request for comment.

"Children are our priority and we know the value of having teachers, parents and a community that supports our children beyond all other issues."

The LSC proposal offers an alternative to the idea presented by local nonprofit The Mind Trust, set forth in its Opportunity Schools report issued last December. The Mind Trust plan suggests transferring authority for IPS from an elected school board to mayoral control, saying that could help fix what it called a broken system.

By contrast, advocates of LSCs say the councils result in more democracy, not less. This point dovetails with another of the report's central assertions: That enabling greater student, parent and community voice within the system will result in the development a more educated and engaged citizenry.

Systems that emphasize "top-down bureaucratic management, the silencing of student voices, a focus on compliance and control of behavior over critical thought and creativity" result in the lack of civic engagement among other social ills, the authors said.

"These days, education reformers focus almost exclusively on college and career readiness," author Loflin said in an announcement of the report's release.

"Of course, both are important, but in the rush to "fuel the economy," we have lost sight of public education's higher civic responsibilities ... We need public schools to fuel our democracy."

Building from the assertion that "(g)overnment schools exist to create a concerned, enlightened, and active public who practice self-rule," the authors conclude that LSCs can "serve as an example to the world of just how U.S. citizens practice their democracy, and how much they believe in self-determination and America's possibilities for equality, justice, and liberty."

They contrast their approach to reform to philosophies that stoke competition among schools, referencing a quote from journalist David Moberg, who wrote: "While competition improves efficiency in a business model, nowhere in human history has competition led to equity."

The full report is available at http://tinyurl.com/LocalSchoolCouncils.

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