Those parents at Whittier Elementary who staged a sit-in to save their school’s fieldhouse from the CPS wrecking ball? Led by the Local School Council.
“You could spearhead a complete revolution at your school,” said Pete Kalenik, project coordinator/education, arts and culture for the North River Commission. Speaking to a group of potential LSC candidates at an information session held recently in Albany Park, Kalenik noted that while an LSC’s primary responsibilities include directing discretionary spending and hiring and firing principals, its influence can extend well beyond those parameters to bring about far-reaching, transformational change.
That’s something Mike McCallum experienced firsthand, joining the LSC at Coonley Elementary, 4046 N. Leavitt, before it was the Coonley that now has parents clamoring to enroll their students.
“Being on an LSC in a school that needed things made you aware how much it needed,” said McCallum, who decided to run for the LSC after hearing a discussion on WBEZ Radio about unfilled positions.
Example: At the time, CPS was funding one teaching position per 30 students. “At Coonley, when it was low enrollment, if you have 10 second-graders and 20 third-graders, you get one teacher. Seeing that really makes you aware of what a school needs.”
Working in tandem with the school’s principal, the LSC created a “Friends of Coonley” organization to provide funding for additional staff and programming. With the proceeds from its first fundraiser, the group was able to pay half the salary of a Spanish teacher.
“Having the programming attracted more enrollment,” said McCallum, particularly a pre-K program that served as a direct feeder into Coonley. “Now people not only aren’t moving away but they’re seeking out the school and I’m going to keep my neighbors. Houses don’t turn over every time there’s a four-year-old in the family.”
Yet if he hadn’t been listening to the radio that one fateful day, McCallum would never had been a participant in Coonley’s metamorphosis. “Half or more of the people don’t know [the LSC] exists,” he said. “For anyone who’s planning on having kids at any point, it makes sense to get involved.”
That’s precisely why first-time candidate Jeff Newman decided to run this year for one of the two community member LSC positions at Amundsen High School, 5110 N. Damen Ave.
Newman and his wife are expecting their first child and “we do not want to ever leave Winnemac Park,” he said of his neighborhood. “North Side and Lane Tech are great, they serve a purpose, but we do not want to be afraid to send our kid to Amundsen.”
After listening to a presentation by Amundsen Principal Carlos Munoz at a recent meeting of the Winnemac Park Neighbors, Newman took a tour of the school. “It was nicer than I thought,” he said. At the same time, though, he didn’t see any of the wonderful things touted by Principal Munoz reflected on the school’s website.
“The story of the school isn’t being pushed out to the community,” Newman said. “It’s 2012. As far as I’m concerned, the front door of every school today says ‘http’ on top. I was interested in going to an LSC meeting and I couldn’t even find the information.”
While updating Amundsen’s website would be a top priority of Newman’s, he would also focus on setting up a “Friends of…” group The ultimate goal: building the reputation of the school to the point where Amundsen attracts families to the area in the way that schools like Coonley do. In fact, Newman would love to pick the brains of people like McCallum.
“What’s really the crux is getting a couple of people from Bell and Coonley who’ve done this, and getting them to share their playbook. I don’t want to reinvent any wheels; I want someone to hand me a set of wheels,” said Newman. “We all want [Amundsen] to be successful, the community wants the school to be a good place.”
The deadline to submit an application to run for a Local School Council is March 8. Application forms can be found online.