During October – within the first forty days of the school year – every Massachusetts public school is required to convene a meeting of its school council. The council – known in Worcester as the “school site council” – is one of the more distinctive innovations introduced in Massachusetts public schools by the Education Reform Act of 1993.
This law mandated that every public elementary, secondary, and “independent vocational” school have such a council, consisting of the school principal (who serves as co-chair), parents of children in the school, teachers elected by their colleagues, and community representatives.
Up to half of the council membership “shall be non-school members”, and the number of parents and of educational personnel on the council are to be equal.
Shortly after enactment of the Education Reform Act, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education highlighted the vital role of the school council in school governance. It emphasized, insightfully, that “[t]eachers, parents, and community members can become more committed to improving the schools and more supportive of the public school system when they enjoy the opportunity to serve or be represented on a school council that has a role in shaping the policies and programs of the school.”
One Massachusetts school system, which instituted site-based decision making and school councils prior to the statewide mandate, includes the following preamble in its guidelines for councils:
Values behind site-based decision making through councils: [the council] improves student outcomes by uniting, in responsible participation, those closest to the teaching-learning relationship; [the council] creates through the development of a shared vision and planning a school environment which unites all members of the school community in a sense of belonging, commitment and growth.”
The councils have, at minimum, the following five key roles under state law:
- They “shall assist in the review of the annual school budget.” This is particularly important is defining the priorities of the school for allocation of the resources available to it.
- They shall assist “in the formulation of a school improvement plan.” This “plan for “improving student performance” is required to contain specific “student performance goals” adopted by the principal “in consultation with the school council.” It shall “assess the needs of the school in light of those goals and formulate a school plan to advance such goals and improve student performance.” The plans are reviewed and approved by the superintendent, “after consultation with the school committee.”
- The council shall “make recommendations to the principal for the development, implementation and assessment of the curriculum accommodation plan.” This plan is designed “to assist principals in ensuring that all efforts have been made to meet students’ needs in regular education.” This plan can be particularly significant for staff, as it “shall be designed to assist the regular education teacher in analyzing and accommodating diverse learning styles of all children in the regular classroom and in providing appropriate services and support within the regular education program … The curriculum accommodation plan shall include provisions encouraging teacher mentoring and collaboration and parental involvement,” and the school council, with its parent membership, is ideally situated to ensure a vibrant substantive role for parents through the plan.
- The council in each school containing grades 9 through 12 “shall review the student handbook each spring to consider changes in disciplinary policy to take effect in September of the following school year, but may consider policy changes at anytime. The annual review shall cover all areas of student conduct.” The entire handbook shall be prepared by the principal “in consultation with the school council.”
- Finally, the school committee has the authority to grant to school councils “additional authority in the area of educational policy.” This is perhaps the most intriguing option as to councils, but school committees rarely exercise it.
Clearly, school councils should be deeply immersed in key areas of school policy and practice, within their statutory mandate. They are required to meet “regularly”. Thus, it is vital that councils begin their work early in the school year, devoting time and effort to each of their responsibilities as detailed above.
Councils must have significant active parent and community membership. Properly – one of my major concerns – they should convene at times when parents and community members are able to attend the meetings. Those who work regular “nine to five” schedules will find it difficult if not impossible to be at meetings held during their typical work day, and schools should acknowledge this in planning their meetings for hours reasonably convenient to them.
Successful schools – those with holistic teacher, parent and community involvement – welcome the advice and participation of their councils to strengthen the education of their students. This is “site based decision making” at its best, and, to succeed, it needs the active, enthusiastic and engaged involvement of our schools, and of all key segments of our community.
If you have an opportunity to serve on such a council, please do so. If your school’s council is not actively exercising all of its proper roles, work with your school, and with its principal, to strengthen it, and to make the promise of its mission, as enshrined in law almost a quarter century ago, a reality.