Democratic Decision Making in Schools

The Community Empowered Schools work emerged in response to Baltimore City closing schools in low income communities and the need for schools to be responsive to students and communities they serve. It also emerged from teachers who seek to connect what they do in the classroom to something bigger. A group of teachers, community members, young people and education advocates worked collaboratively to learn about different models of community involvement in other states so that we can bring these lessons back to Baltimore. The purpose of our research and organizing effort was to:

1) educate ourselves and others about what it might mean for communities to have significant power in their local schools

2) to support community groups in forming their own local school councils, PTO’s or other community body that strives to support and change schools.

The following are a collection of reading on the topic. 

O'Connell, M. (1991). How Citizens Organized to Change Public Policy. A Special Issue of The Neighborhood Works.

Youth United for Change (2016).  "Pushed Out" 

Kelleher, M. (2016). Can History Repeat Itself and Spark a Parent Revolution? Catalyst Chicago.  (Kris)

Catalyst is an independent magazine that has been reporting on urban schools in Chicago for decades.  Specifically, it has tracked the legislation and implementation of Local School Councils since their inception in 1989.  This  recent article from the May 2016 issue has looks at the past, present and future of LSCs and provides links to articles and books that answer many of the questions we have about what worked and what did not.

Julian Vasqez Heilig is one of the leading academics talking about new forms of accountability. (Helen)

This blog post is chock full of links to other posts and articles, including a two page “executive summary.”  This whole arena is a bit nerdy, but it has important implications for the work of “Local School Councils” that could take on the responsibility for setting real goals for what a school should try to achieve.  (Real rather than the fake ones that were mandated by Federal grants such as No Child Left Behind).  This article proposes some highly debatable data points by which to measure schools--career readiness, for instance, has been taken over by the privatizers and edreform people without any demands for actual career training.  But despite this, Heilig does a good job of anticipating a trend that is on its way: the cutting back on high stakes testing.

Hagood, H.B. (1969). Community Control of the Schools: A New Alternative. U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. (Nicole)

We read this article as part of our Summer Institute 2016.  Team members agreed that the list of requirements for community control on the last two pages could be almost word for word what we want to see in Baltimore.  We noted that Hagood uses the term “Black Reservation”  to refer to how Black people in our large urban centers are treated.  We also saw a parallel between this use of language and that of Christopher Emdin's recent book--For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of You All Too--in which he refers to black children in our cities as “neoindigenous.”  This article makes it clear that teachers need support in this work and that there has to be an emphasis on growing paraprofessionals.  One problem that Hagood raises is the fact that this kind of shift in power might be difficult to superimpose on existing schools.  We noted, also, that we might want to consider eliminating the idea that the community hires and fires staff, but keep the idea that the community hires and evaluates the principal.

Katz, M.B. (1992).  Chicago school reform as history.  Teachers College Record (94) 1, 56-72. (Helen) 

This is a relatively short article and is very useful as a way to get an idea of Local School Councils in Chicago.  We can compare the information here, in an article written when LSCs were still fairly new, to the information we collected in our trip to Chicago (captured on video).  Here are several quotations from the article:

As a process, it [local school councils] refers to an ongoing attempt to implement both the letter and spirit of the act, that is, to change both the structure and the content of public schooling through the transformation of educational governance. As a social movement, Chicago school reform means the mobilization of communities around the cause of educational reform, the democratization of relations in school governance, and the revitalization of the public sphere.

Local School Councils consist of six parents, two community members, two teachers, the principal, and, in high schools, a student as non-voting member formed each council. Councils hire principals, now placed on four-year contracts and stripped of tenure in the system. Certification requirements for principals have been liberalized. Principals choose teachers for their schools and fire unsatisfactory ones with less difficulty than before. Councils have broad authority over curriculum and school management, and they control a sizable amount of state money previously routed through the central bureaucracy.

 Katz, M.B. Fine, M. & Simon, E. (1997) Poking Around: Outsiders’ View of Chicago School Reform Teachers College Record. (99) 1, 117-177. (Helen)  

While this article does not have the benefit of looking backwards from 2016 (since it was written in 1997)--now that the power of the school councils has been significantly eroded--it does lay out how Local School Councils came into being in Chicago, what the differences were between them, what it took to support them, and provides ideas for how we could proceed in Baltimore.

Cotton on School Based Management (Helen)

School Based Management is not quite the same as community control, but it has a lot of similarities.  This article is helpful because it lays out the ways that things can go wrong: lack of time for decision making; lack of training for council members; lack of clarity about the role of council members; unrealistic expectations; lack of group skills process; lack of support for council; lack of understanding about school operations; not getting enough autonomy to do things differently--being held to the same constraints.  Fortunately, the article also lays out how the process can be made successful.

Shiller, J. (2013). “Preparing for democracy: How community-based organizations build civic engagement among urban youth,” Urban Education 48 (1) 69-91. (Jessica)

Puerto Ricans and the Community Control Movement in New York City's Lower East Side: An Interview with Luis Fuentes by James Jennings, Francisco Chapman & Luis Fuentes (1995). William Monroe Trotter Institute. 

This Occasional Paper is based on an interview conducted with Luis Fuentes, New York City's first Puerto Rican pubhc school district superintendent, regarding his experiences and involvement with the Community Control Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Led by Black, Latino and Asian parents, this movement represented a struggle for significant parental participation in the public schools system. The Community Control Movement, as a social movement, helped to shape urban education during that period. Many of the issues raised within the context of the Community Control Movement in New York City are still relevant today.


Anthony S. Bryk, Penny Bender Sebring, Elaine Allensworth, Stuart Luppescu, John Q. Easton, Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago (University of Chicago Press, 2010)

Available on Amazon 

This important book is a study of the effects of a decentralization reform effort in the entire Chicago public school system, initiated by the Illinois Legislature, to take effect in 1989. It lasted until 1995, although some aspects remain in place today. It provided a remarkable research opportunity to study a fairly radical change in a school system. With one serious qualification, the reform effort was quite successful. Each school community elected a Local School Council (LSC) composed of the principal, two teachers, six parents, two local community members (and high schools had a student member). The authors found that 5 “supports” enabled the schools to improve:

(1) leadership (especially the principal) as the driver for change.

(2) parent-community ties: “Encouraging new relations with parents and local communities to repair the long-standing disconnect between urban schools and the children and families they serve.

Through active outreach efforts, staff members seek to make the school a more hospitable and welcoming environment for parents and strengthen the connections to other local institutional concerned with the care and well-being of children and their families.” (3 aspects of this: (a) school efforts to reach out to parents, engaging them directly in processes of strengthening student learning. (b) teacher efforts to become knowledgeable about student culture and the local community, and to draw on this in their instruction. (c) strengthening the network of community organizations, to expand services for students and their families.) 

(3) professional capacity: supporting faculty leaning, and promoting an ethos of continuous improvement across the school-based professional community.

(4) student-centered learning climate: students feel safe and are pressed and supported to engage in more ambitious intellectual activity.

(5) instructional guidance: cultivating school-wide supports concerning curriculum and instruction in order to promote more ambitious academic achievement for every child.

The qualification of the success is that a small number of schools characterized by a high degree of concentrated poverty (70%, and almost entirely African-American) were unable to put the supports in place and did not benefit from the reform. “Not only are the[se] schools highly stressed, but they exist in weak communities and confront an extraordinary density of human needs that walk through the front door every day” (209-10). The authors use this finding to refute the idea that every child of poverty can be taught successfully through a regimen of “high expectations” and “no excuses” (although the study does not generally go in for this corporate reform language, either pro or con). The period studied predated the more recent mass closure of schools and the idea of “turnaround” that Mayor Emmanuel put in place in Chicago. The authors stick to their data and do not engage with these contemporary developments, that are echoed in Baltimore and elsewhere. In addition, the community-based reforms are entirely “top down”. The community focus is not in response to community organizations making demands of the school system. The presence of such organizations, as in Baltimore, would affect the dynamic of reform. (I have not read the entire book and it is possible that some attention is paid to such organizations somewhere in the book.) Nevertheless the results of the study are very supportive of community-school partnerships. The fact that the study does NOT come out of the very contemporary politically-charged atmosphere around community struggles against the closing of schools makes it in some ways a stronger form of support than if it were identified with one party in the current political struggle. The very important “poverty qualification” about the reform effort shows that educational justice cannot be severed from a movement for economic justice. Schools are very affected by poverty and cannot solve the problem of poverty.

The lead author, Anthony Bryk, is a very respected and influential educational researcher, who is now the President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The book is written in a very academic style, although within that framework, it is well-written. But it is not an easy read. But it is an important resource for groups advocating community involvement in schools.