As part of our work with the Nellie Mae Educational Foundation on education governance, Angela Romans – AISR’s former co-director of District & Systems Transformation – sat down with Beatriz Ponce de León, executive director of Generation All in Chicago, to talk about why community involvement in governance is important and what it looks like on the ground in Chicago.
We’ve included an excerpt from their interview below; read the full interview here. This is the third in a series of three interviews on education governance. For more information, visit our Rhode Island Education Governance Forum publication page.
Why does youth and community involvement and representation in governance matter?
Beatriz Ponce de León: Whenever you are planning for any kind of public good, the people who are impacted by that work should participate in some of the decision-making. They should inform the governance, especially when there are new things being introduced. There should be that opportunity for the users of the system, the people ultimately impacted, to give input into what’s happening and help co-create the change.
For schools, students’ participation in decision-making is important because they often know what works. Generation All has formed a Youth Council that consists of 15 young people who will raise awareness of and change the narrative about neighborhood public high schools in Chicago. Chicago has a deep system of school choice. We have selective schools that students have to test into, a plethora of charter high schools, and a growing number of alternative high schools for kids who are being pushed out or might be dropping out. Neighborhood schools are the default option that serve a certain geographic boundary. Generation All aims to revitalize these neighborhood high schools so that all students have access to high-quality learning opportunities.
Our Youth Council is a mix of students from neighborhood schools, selective and charter schools, and Catholic schools. They know that neighborhood high schools should be as good as any other school, that they should have the same types of resources, and that they might need some extra support because of where they’re located and who they serve. The Youth Council is putting together a mini-documentary to show the disparities among different types of schools, and also to highlight some of the positive things that are happening at neighborhood high schools. The Youth Council is also organizing a conference to celebrate neighborhood high schools and to give students more skills and information.
At a systemic level, what are some concrete examples of community involvement in education governance?
Beatriz Ponce de León: Our steering committee includes community in the governance space. The orginal vision of Generation All was to bring the district and union together and form a steering committee to come up with a new vision for equity. About half of the final group we convened, after I was hired, were students, parents, teachers, and principals, people who are in schools every day. The other half were very senior-level people from the school district, the union, the park district, the library, and the Department of Family and Support Services – the kind of city institutions that work on and make decisions about programs that impact youth and the schools, and youth service organizations that provide afterschool programming or enrichment activities.
For almost 18 months the steering committee gathered monthly to learn, debate, dream, and create a shared vision and plan for how to expand equity in education. They chose to focus on neighborhood high schools because these schools are the most open and accessible and serve the widest range of students, including the most struggling. The plan focused on three major areas of work: practice, policy, and public engagement. Practice recommendations addressed student-centered learning, exploring and building on the community schools model, ensuring that all neighborhood high school students have post-secondary advising and counseling, and creating safe and supportive school environments for both students and adults. To get to those practice areas we had to address policy issues, including creating a city-wide, neighborhood-informed plan for where schools need to be. In our research, we found that Chicago has too many high schools and not enough students to fill them, in part because, for the last 15 years, there was a huge push to open charter schools. Yet we have a declining student population. We currently have more seats than students, and many of our neighborhood high schools are struggling with enrollment.
We also recommend looking at equitable funding for schools, not equal funding. We are encouraging the district to rethink how it funds schools – not just on a per-student basis, but to really take into account the needs of a school population based on the community and the population.
The last section of the work is around public engagement. We found that in general, people in Chicago are very mistrustful of the school district. Chicago Public Schools [CPS] is under the governance of the mayor, and the mayor also appoints the school board. We do have local school councils at the majority of our schools, but the authority of those local school councils, in recent years, has been reduced. But they still are an opportunity for community engagement.
We launched this plan in April 2017 in collaboration with senior-level people from CPS, the union, and other organizations. But when we began to push on the community-informed, city-wide plan and equitable funding, the district, even though it had been a partner, began to pull away. Our work shifts attention away from school choice and to school guarantees. That’s uncomfortable – it’s not the norm in Chicago. We’re trying to balance becoming stronger advocates with working with the district in more productive ways.
What should other districts or cities know about involving community members in governance issues?
Beatriz Ponce de León: We notice challenges in the area of connecting neighborhood-based community engagement with a city-wide perspective. In some neighborhoods, there are local groups that work on education and advise CPS in one way or another. But those local efforts aren’t connected to a city-wide vision.
Is there anything else you’d want to share with other districts about partnering with community members?
Beatriz Ponce de León: In Chicago, we have mayoral control over the school district, which makes it more challenging to have authentic public engagement and decision-making. We have to find alternative ways to include the voices of parents, students, and educators. So that’s where organizations like Generation All and other intermediaries can have a role when we have access to meetings that have to do with the mayor’s office, the district, or a foundation. We can also be a bridge in bringing voices that are less threatening than people marching in front of a Board meeting, and who have very valid things to say. It’s a tricky strategy to balance.