Expansion of School Advisory Councils: Popular idea, but devil is in the details

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

By Paul Jablow

For supporters of extending School Advisory Councils (SAC) to all schools in the District — and there is virtually no outspoken opposition to this — the devil is in the details.

A coalition of community groups formally requested a School Reform Commission resolution mandating this in July. And speakers at the August SRC meeting kept up the pressure for the body to go on record in favor of extending the concept from its present 38 schools to every school in the District.

But as the school year gets underway, District officials say that thin staffing due to budget cuts could make moving ahead difficult.

SRC Chair Pedro Ramos voiced general support for the SAC concept at the August meeting but was noncommittal about when a resolution might be introduced. District spokesperson Fernando Gallard later said that Ramos was unavailable to discuss the subject.

Speaking glowingly about what the SAC has accomplished at Jackson Elementary School, Adriana Arvizo, parent organizer at JUNTOS, told the SRC in August, "We want to see the same results we saw in Jackson in every school in the city."

"We’re looking for September," said Sylvia Simms, founder and president of Parent Power, in a later interview. "The sooner the better."

Simms acknowledged, "We do know that the District doesn’t have enough staff."

"We were disappointed" that the SRC took no action, said Jesse Braxton, parent and school organizer for the community group Action United, "but we’re going to push ahead." Braxton added, however, that it would make no sense for the SRC to pass what amounted to an "unfunded mandate."

There is clearly little support at District headquarters for a resolution that doesn’t go beyond words.

"For me, sustainability is everything," said Claudia S. Averette, deputy chief of the Office of Parent, Family, Community Engagement and Faith-Based Partnerships. "That’s critical. We have not always done a great job on sustainability. You put in all this work at the front end, you can’t just stand up and walk away."

Averette said that the District’s goal remains to expand SACs this year from the present 38 — not counting Renaissance charters — by adding the 73 "full autonomy" schools. The goal is for all schools to have working SACS by 2015-16, she said.

"Full autonomy" schools are those that, in the words of Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon, have "had consistent leadership for the past two years and have either improved the School Performance Index score or met Adequate Yearly Progress."

Averette expects parents from all 73 schools to attend a School Advisory Council summit in late October or early November. "They can put the SAC together right there," she said.

But she said the job has become tougher this year by a reduction from 120 to 42 of School Improvement Support Liaison personnel, whose parent engagement work has included working with SACs.

"It will be a challenge," Averette said. "If I have to rely just on District staff, it would not be adequate."

Organizations making up a SAC working group, including the Philadelphia Student Union, Parent Power and the Philadelphia Education Fund, are helping with parent training, but probably lack the resources to take on larger roles.

And Averette is still drawing up a budget to include what personnel and financial resources she will need to make the SAC expansion workable.

Those concerns are echoed by the Mayor’s Office of Education.

"As we move in the direction of a decentralized system," said Ami Patel, a policy adviser in the office, "SACs should play a key role.

But, she added, "before a resolution can be passed by the SRC, it is important to identify capacity and to develop a strategic plan so the SAC model can expand successfully."