A key part of local school oversight and parent engagement is left largely up to individual schools, with wildly varied results.

When Marissa Baptista moved to Hawaii in 2019, she immediately started looking for ways to get involved in her children’s education. 

The Native Hawaiian mother of three had been a regular attendee of local school board meetings in Virginia, where parents raised concerns about everything from school boundaries to school lunches.

Because Hawaii does not have local school boards, Baptista was told her best avenue was the school community council — an advisory group of parents, students and school employees that every public school in Hawaii is mandated by law to have.

The councils are supposed to play an active role in overseeing a school’s academic and financial plans, so Baptista says she was surprised to find that not all of her children’s schools held regular SCC meetings. 

“There was a huge gap there,” Baptista said. “It’s very hit-or-miss.”

Hawaii Board of Education Member Makana McClellan speaks at a community meeting at Ewa Makai Middle School. Parents frequently raised concerns about poor communication and engagement during the board’s recent strategic planning process. (Viola Gaskell/Civil Beat/2022)

Lawmakers and education leaders have known for more than a decade that there are significant challenges with the SCC system. Some schools have extremely engaged and active councils, other schools fail to let parents know that councils exist — let alone hold regular meetings or post timely agendas. 

The uneven implementation means that school councils are failing to provide a meaningful statewide outlet for parent engagement and community input. Yet little has been done to change the system since its inception in 2004. 

“There’s no accountability,” said Baptista, who is currently on the board of the Hawaii PTSA.

It’s up to individual principals to recognize the importance of a school council and support it, Baptista said, but there also needs to be more oversight.

“Some checks and balances of OK, we gave you a policy, we gave you flexibility,” Baptista said. “Now we’re going to come in and check that you’re actually doing what you say you’re going to do. And that’s missing.”

The state Board of Education has made improving parent engagement and ensuring every campus has an active school community council a key goal in its new strategic plan, but it is still figuring out how to ensure those goals will be converted into meaningful action.

“How do we measure that?, so that people are saying, ‘Yes, we are really making movement toward making this a really effective process,” BOE Member William Arakaki said.

DOE Department of Education board member William Arakaki attends board meeting.
BOE member William Arakaki says improving parent engagement is a key goal. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Just Another Mandate

School community councils were put into place in 2004, as part of a sweeping education bill aimed at “reinventing education” and giving schools more local control. 

The law created the state’s current funding formula and tried to address local accountability by mandating that every school have an SCC that would review and approve the school’s annual academic and financial plans.

At the time, a number of schools already had robust local councils but the system was largely voluntary. Schools had to petition to form a council, a process that also gave the school more autonomy from a very top-down state education system. Some of those councils did take on the function of a local school board, holding robust community meetings that occasionally garnered local media coverage. 

The 2004 law was meant to expand that kind of local input, but in many ways it became just another mandate for schools. That mandate includes holding annual elections for school councils, ensuring that councils include parent and student representatives, posting agendas online six days before each meeting and regularly posting meeting minutes.

By 2016, fewer than half of the state’s school councils were following guidelines and posting agendas and meeting minutes to a central DOE website. Today, the DOE no longer maintains a site and instead directs schools to operate their own community engagement page for SCCs.

Of the 20 school websites Civil Beat spot checked, six had no specific page for SCCs, while 13 had no agendas posted for the current school year.

Many principals struggle to find parents who want to serve on an SCC — particularly at middle and high school levels, said Ken Kakesako, acting director of the Department of Education branch that works with school councils. 

“Middle school really is where we are starting to see parents actually losing engagement in their children’s education,” Kakesako said.

There can also be a lack of general awareness among parents about what school councils are and how they differ from PTAs, Kakesako said. Other parents who do want to be actively involved in the school community may opt to join the parent-teacher association instead because they prioritize things like fundraising for schools over weighing in on school administration issues.

“While I do think it’s imperative that the school do its due diligence and do its outreach, I do also put some responsibility on parents to be involved,” Kakesako said.

More Accountability Needed

School community councils can play a key role in improving educational outcomes and elevating parent voices, said Paula Cordeiro, a professor at the University of San Diego whose research focuses on parental involvement in schools. 

Massachusetts schools posted dramatic improvements during the several-decade period that Cordeiro was studying them, in part because of the state’s local school council system, she said. But the state had strong training for councils and there were accountability measures built into the system, she said. 

It’s important to track how often agendas and reports are being posted and whether those reports are accessible not only to other local councils, but so that the state board can see what kinds of issues are being raised locally, Cordeiro said.

There is little oversight of the school councils in Hawaii or repercussions for schools that don’t comply with state guidelines for holding elections or posting agendas.

A lot of information about how SCCs are functioning comes from an annual self-assessment survey. (Screenshot/2022)

One accountability measure comes through the waiver process, Kakesako said. Schools need to have their SCC sign off on requests for the Board of Education to waive certain policies — for example, requests to modify school calendars to allow for professional development days. If a school doesn’t have an SCC, it won’t be able to get those waivers.

Kakesako says he spot checks school websites and acknowledges that community engagement pages can sometimes be difficult to find. The DOE had a full time person assigned to work with school councils, but the position is currently vacant. The DOE is actively trying to fill the vacancy, Kakesako said.

A lot of information about school councils comes from an annual self-assessment survey the SCCs fill out.

Last year, 98% of SCCs completed the survey — a significant increase from the 2020-21 school year when only about a third of schools councils did so. In the survey 81% of schools reported having a community engagement page, but only 56.3% said they regularly posted agendas or minutes.

The survey also showed that only about half of SCCs conducted training for new members, and that student members had “little or no understanding” of the responsibilities of the council they served on. At the same time, the vast majority of survey respondents said they were satisfied with participation and decision-making on the council.

Baptista says SCC engagement and participation at her children’s schools have gotten markedly better as the state emerges from the pandemic. She sits on an SCC that meets regularly and engages parents in robust conversations about school issues.

She also thinks schools should be given a fair amount of grace as they grapple with significant challenges in getting students back on track after the disruptions of the last few years. But she envisions SCC accountability becoming a bigger issue for parent-teacher organizations moving forward.

“At some point in the future I think it may be something that PTAs are looking at in terms of, what does our financial plan look like? Does the academic plan align with what parents want?” Baptista said. “But I don’t think we’re there yet. I think we’re still coming out of this phase of, ‘let’s make sure we have all our resources in place, and then talk about these other pieces.’”

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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