FROM FOR THE RECORD (Friday, November 8, 1996): Correction Christmas was incorrectly referred to as a secular holiday in story about school councils in the Nov. 7 edition of the North Side Voice.
After home schooling her kids for two years, J.J. Moody wanted a say in their education when she enrolled them at Bemiss Elementary.
“My kid wouldn’t be going to public school if the attitude was, drop her off at the door and pick her up in 12 years,” said Moody, mother of four.
She quickly heard that Bemiss Elementary parents voted on most major decisions, and was skeptical.
“I was a little curious if the power really would be given to parents, or if it would be some advisory board with nominal power,” said Moody.
But Moody, like many other parents with children attending District 81 schools, found real authority.
Through the school’s site council, she got to vote on ways to improve reading curriculum and on how to spend $10,000 in grants.
This winter at Bemiss, safety improvements will be formulated. A holiday policy, for secular holidays like Christmas, will soon be set.
Site councils are public schools’ form of direct democracy. The nationwide trend is percolating in Spokane, as all District 81 schools are molding councils in preparation for a January deadline.
Mead, Nine Mile Falls and Deer Park schools are also drawing up site council plans.
“The feeling is, no longer are teachers working in isolation, and no longer are parents left out of their children’s education,” said Darlene Woodard, a Ridgeview Elementary teacher who chairs the school’s site council.
Councils consist of a handful of appointed or elected parents and teachers.
Because they are representative, the councils are a significant switch in traditional school structures, in which principals ruled schools like monarchs.
Not so now. Through the site councils, dozens of small revolutions are afoot.
Each school’s council sets its own rules, including size and balance between parents and teachers. Some are weighted toward staff interests. Most are chaired or dominated by parents.
The new authority is drawing parents who hadn’t been involved, said Joe Chrastil, a consultant who is helping Spokane schools organize site councils.
“In the past, parent groups - PTAs have been primarily relegated to fund-raising,” said Chrastil. “When you start talking about site councils, you start talking about a different appeal (for parents). There’s different parents involved.”
Most agree that more parental involvement is good. “They come up with better decisions than we could have done on our own,” said Bemiss principal Dale McDonald.
But even harmonious schools are struggling with the change. Principals are adjusting to altered, and less powerful, roles. Teachers must collaborate with parents.
“It’s difficult to share power,” said Carla Nuxoll, regional representative for the Department of Education. “It has for so long been held in the hands of a few people. To really change who has the power is real change.”
“Some (teachers) have only seen parents when they are angry or when they have a gripe,” said Chrastil. “Sometimes it’s hard for them to go beyond that.”
“It’s hard for me to know what people want me to make decisions on, and what the council should make decisions on,” said Shiloh Hills principal Joan Davis.
Successful site councils have defined roles and established fluid communications with staff and parents. Small problems, like parking permits, are ignored in favor of sweeping issues.
“If it impacts student learning, it goes through the site council,” said Ridgeview’s Woodard.
Shadle Park High School’s site council led the switch to a block schedule by keeping teachers, janitors and parents updated.
Finch Elementary’s council is preparing a variance request for special art classes and is considering changes to discipline policy.
Bemiss’s council is canvassing social services and business in hopes of becoming a community hub.
“I think we have a lot more authority than we realize,” said Finch chair and parent Sandy Duncan.
But disharmony among parents and teachers will quash site councils, said Chrastil.
“You’ve got to get parents and teachers face to face,” he said. “They’ve got to take some time to deliberately get together, build some trust by sharing stories about themselves.”
At schools with ongoing personality conflicts between administrators and parents - such as at Madison Elementary - the site councils are sputtering.
Other school districts have also found site councils to be political forums. Chicago’s site councils fragmented the public school district.
“If you have parents with particular religious views on curriculum … on Halloween, or on a book … it gets very difficult,” said Nuxoll, who met with Finch parents and other site council members last month during a Spokane trip.
“You have to build a lot of trust among staff and parents,” said Shadle Park site council chairwoman Joyce Simpson, a teacher at the school. “You do that through information, information, information, talking to them, talking to them, talking to them.”
Few administrators or teachers know where the councils will head. Nuxoll thinks schools with site councils will be more and more responsive to working parents.
Parents appreciate the possibilities, but remain somewhat skeptical. “I vacillate between days when I’m a figurehead and days when I have something,” said Finch site council chairwoman Duncan.
Shadle Park’s Simpson, a district expert on site councils, said confusion is normal in initial stages. “The councils are so evolutionary, there’s no magic formula to put them together,” she said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos (1 color)
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: PARENTS MEETING A site council information meeting for all Spokane School District 81 parents will be held from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Nov. 14 at Shadle Park High School, 4327 N. Ash. Copies of a parent’s guide for site councils will be available at the meeting.