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It was a small and informal looking group that gathered in the teachers’ lunchroom at Waikiki Elementary School last week to discuss an important but pressing question: Beyond academic test scores, how could the school best measure its progress?
Waikiki Elementary is preparing for its accreditation visit, and Principal Bonnie Tabor wanted to get input from her school community council — a group of parents, teachers, students and community members that each school is required by law to have — on how to best prove what the school has been accomplishing.
One parent at Waikiki wanted to know if the school could use the daily self-assessments that her daughter completes in class each day. Another voiced concern about the tendency to rely too much on numbers and reports. All the members went home with information to pore over before the next meeting.
Though they might sound like a glorified PTA, school community councils like the one at Waikiki Elementary are actually supposed to play a critical role in local school governance by signing off on the school’s academic and financial plans.
But a decade after Act 51 mandated that each school in the state have a school community council, it’s unclear how well the system is — or isn’t — working when it comes to giving parents and community members a voice in how schools are run.
Some schools have active and robust councils with large turnouts at monthly meetings. At other schools, it’s difficult to even verify the existence of an SCC beyond a signature on the two plans each year.
As of early January, fewer than half of the public schools in the state had posted a meeting agenda for the 2015-16 school year on the state’s school document website.
The Department of Education no longer has a full time employee working with the SCCs, nor a comprehensive list of SCC officers and members — something that should be posted online for the public to access according to the department’s own guidelines.
Only 28 of the schools that did have information posted in January had uploaded all their agendas at least six days prior to the meeting — a requirement of the law.
And last year, less than a quarter of school community councils in the state submitted an end of the year self-assessment of their work, a remarkable decline from previous years.
Principals say robust school community councils can be incredibly valuable, but recruiting and sustaining such a group can be challenging. A lack of training and awareness about what the councils do is also a barrier.
“We just have to figure out how to translate that academic and financial planning process as something that is more tangible for the community,” says Dan Miyamoto, who works with the councils part time in his role as administrator of the DOE’s school renewal and redesign section.
Community input and school autonomy has long been an issue in Hawaii, which is the only state that has a single school district and board of education.
The centralized structure of Hawaii schools can make it difficult for parents and community members in schools outside of Honolulu to have their voices heard, which is part of what lawmakers tried to address when they passed a sweeping overhaul of public education in 2004 aimed at providing more financial and academic autonomy to schools.
In addition to creating the Weighted Student Formula funding system, the law mandated that every school create a community council to make sure parents and teachers had a say in how the school is run.
At the time, some schools already had a similar council and decision-making structure in place. But in order to get the council, schools had to go through an application process and a majority of teachers in the school had to sign off on the application, Rep. Roy Takumi said.
The result was that not all schools had a council.
“The original thinking behind school community councils was that each school should have the autonomy and the flexibility and the authority to kind of determine their own financial and academic path,” Takumi said. “As a part of that, school community councils were entrusted with the responsibility to develop a school’s academic and financial plan.”
School community councils are supposed to include administrators, teachers, parents, students, and community members. To keep a balance of power, half of the council has to be school employees and the other half parents, students, or community members. Representatives from each group are supposed to be elected by their peers.
The councils are advisory, and school principals can overrule council decisions. There is an appeal process, though, that can go all the way up to the Board of Education if a council feels the principal has unfairly overruled its decision.
Assistant Superintendent Suzanne Mulcahy, who was a principal at Kailua Intermediate when Act 51 went into effect, says she wouldn’t want to be a principal without a school community council.
The councils can provide valuable insight and advice, Mulcahy said. They also help create a sense of ownership among the school community that can really help drive progress. When parents and teachers feel they’ve had a say in decisions, they are much more likely to take an active role on campus.
At Waikiki Elementary School, the school community council has gone to Board of Education meetings with Tabor, the principal, to protest issues in the past, and helped to shape school policies.
Former Castle-Kahuku Complex Area Superintendent Lea Albert valued the school community councils enough to create a complex-wide community council in 2010.
The Castle Complex Community Council started out working on a redesign of the complex area in 2010, and created a family engagement initiative. This year it is delving into character education in the local schools, says Susan Young, a former principal who works part time as the council’s facilitator.
Without a staff member to support the council, Young says it could be difficult to keep the organization running. Young says her salary is paid for through a grant from a local nonprofit that focuses on community engagement in schools.
In the first few years after the law was passed, the DOE conducted thorough trainings for principals on how to put together and manage a school community council, Young said.
“I guess I would like to press the refresh button, because it is a powerful tool to help schools improve.” — Suzanne Mulcahy
Lawmakers felt that there would be a steep learning curve, but the hope was that over time there would be enough people with experience on board to train and recruit new members each year.
With teacher and parent turnover in schools, institutional knowledge has continued to be an issue for the school councils, Takumi said.
At the same time, the number of full time positions in the state DOE office overseeing school community councils has shrunk from several to one to none.The school community council coordinator position has been vacant for at least two years.
Mulcahy, who became assistant superintendent of the office that oversees school community councils last year, says her hope would be to fill the position with someone who could breath new life into school community councils — especially for the principals who weren’t around when Act 51 was passed.
“I guess I would like to press the refresh button, because it is a powerful tool to help schools improve,” Mulcahy said.
The need to revisit the effectiveness of SCCs has not been lost on the Board of Education, which has also been grappling in recent months with how to best live up to its own policies for public engagement — including holding meetings in the evening and on neighboring islands.
Although a majority of schools aren’t posting agendas in the time and manner prescribed by the law, that doesn’t mean the schools don’t have an active SCC. Some principals said there was a mixup about who on the council was supposed to be posting the agendas, but that they met regularly. Others did not respond to a request for comment.
Of the 52 schools that completed a self-assessment last year — something that DOE guidelines say all 256 schools should do annually — most rated themselves as doing well. The self-assessment scores dipped most often when it came to how well the council was doing at recruitment and monitoring implementation.
Takumi said the data collected by Civil Beat should be a cause of concern for the Board of Education, but pointed out that his office has not received any complaints from parents about the lack of agendas or public information on school community councils.
How many parents and teachers are even aware of the existence or role of the councils is unclear.
And then there’s the issue of how much impact even the most active school community councils can really have.
School community councils don’t have the level of empowerment that they need, BOE Vice Chair Brian De Lima said in October, according to meeting minutes. The board voted in October to create an investigative committee to look into how the councils are functioning.
Members of the investigative committee did not respond to a request for comments.
Takumi says that since Act 51 passed, he’s received occasional emails from parents or school community council members who say their school principal is ignoring the council’s input. These parents would like to see the councils have the final say on the financial plans, not the principal.
So far that’s been something that Takumi says the Legislature hasn’t had much interest in. The buck stops with the principal, Takumi says, and therefore so should the decisions. Plus there’s a system in place for appeals.
The number of full time positions in the state DOE office overseeing school community councils has shrunk from several to one to none.
A few years after Act 51 passed, the teachers union tried to get the process changed so that the union selected which teachers were on the SCC, Takumi said, but the effort didn’t receive much support.
Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee says one of the most common comments he hears from teachers is that they want more of a say in the decisions made at the school level.
One way to fix that, Rosenlee said, would be to change the current system and make it so that at least 50 percent of teachers at each school would have to sign off on the academic and financial plans.
As it stands, Mulcahy says it would be difficult to give Hawaii’s SCCs an effectiveness grade.
“I think there are some schools that are a lot more dedicated to making sure there’s a school community council that is alive and well on their campus,” Mulcahy said. “And then some, maybe because of past negative experiences, may have adjusted their bylaws so they don’t have quite as many meetings. And that in a sense would water down their effectiveness to bring about change.”