From the bottom up, community members, parents, teachers and principals are required to weigh in regularly on decisions regarding school finances, curriculum and schedules.
Discussions will begin before the end of the school year on whether Cobb will join the state’s 16 charter systems, said school board Vice Chairman Randy Scamihorn.
The state Board of Education has asked each of Georgia’s 181 school districts to declare what sort of system they want to be by June 2015.
Cobb has a few options. It can become a charter system, keep the status quo as a traditional system or create clusters of charter schools.
Board members aren’t sure if parents and the community are ready for the high level of involvement required by the charter school model. And some are skeptical about how well such a model would translate to the state’s second-largest school system.
Marietta charter system working well
Marietta City Schools became a charter system in June 2008, and hasn’t looked back.
Superintendent Emily Lembeck has signed a contract, or charter, with the state to increase student involvement within the district’s 12 schools. Parents, administrators and teachers say this contract has given them more flexibility in how they teach the state-mandated curriculum. Lembeck said her hands are no longer tied to state regulations on hiring and paying teachers or scheduling and filling classes.
Instead of working within parameters set forth by the state
superintendent, Lembeck said she is able to be creative with how the system is run and is able to quickly act on the needs she hears from parents.
“We are able to use our time, our talent and our funding in ways that make the most sense to get the best results possible for their use,” Lembeck said.
Marietta’s charter system is a web of ‘teams’
Since becoming a charter, each school has created its own governing team, called the school governance team, or SGT.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, six parents, teachers and community members crammed into a small room off the main office at Park Street Elementary, around the corner from Roswell Street Baptist Church, for the monthly SGT meeting.
Each member came to the table with a different perspective. Principal Corey Lawson knew what financial decisions needed to be made. Second-grade teacher Tressa Banks knew what her students were saying in her classroom. Parent Christina Olaribigbe knew what her sons were doing at home, while Naomi Beverly knew what her neighbors within the community were saying.
Over chocolate bars and jelly beans, the group discussed upcoming state reading tests, how they planned to schedule the extra hours of snowstorm make-up time and what they wanted to spend their $25,000 of state Charter System Funds on next year.
For more than two hours, the group intently picked apart online learning sites, debated how to best communicate a lengthened school day schedule to parents and discussed field trip ideas to math and engineering STEM-related events.
“This process has given schools the voice to innovate,” said Lawson, who has been principal for eight years.
Lawson said he has seen an enormous shift in the quality of administrative work done at his school since becoming a charter system.
“There was a disconnect with what the school’s needs were, how the board could support the needs and then with the super,” Lawson said. “This process gives schools a seamless line of communication from the community to the superintendent and school board.”
Parent involvement at Park Street, with a transiency rate of roughly 34 percent, has been consistently high, Lawson said.
An average of 94 percent of parents come to parent/teacher conferences each semester. Thursday’s PTA meeting was standing room only. Lawson said there was no change in parent engagement since becoming a charter system.
Instead, the shift in governance has helped him find better ways to get community feedback.
When the school was run by school councils, the parent-run governing teams Cobb uses, Lawson said he struggled to get meaningful work done at the parent level and then translate it to the school board and central offices.
“We were focused on superficial things, like what toilets need fixing, where there were lights out. We actually can focus on efficiency in the classroom now.” Lawson said. “School councils seem like an antiquated way to run schools. This seems like it’s pushing the envelope for 21st century schools.”
Some Cobb parents can’t commit
Amoni Witcher, PTA president at Brumby Elementary in southeast Cobb, said she has about 40 percent of parents regularly involved.
While the option to have a SGT is nice, Witcher doesn’t think her school community is ready for the responsibility.
“I don’t personally feel it’s going to encourage involvement any more than what we are trying to do now,” Witcher said.
Instead, she believes work needs to be done within the current system to make significant changes with parent involvement. Brumby’s principal and school board representative Scott Sweeney are both receptive to the parents’ needs, Witcher said, but work isn’t going to get done if parents are at work and unable to schedule afternoon meetings once a month. Being a charter system won’t automatically increase parent involvement.
“All our parents want to have a little bit more control, but I don’t really see the need for a charter school right now for us, as least,” Witcher said.
From the school members to the central office and board
After the Park Street meeting, Lawson was preparing to send the SGT’s requests for funding to the central offices, which would be considered, edited and then presented to the board for approval.
The process is more fluid and gives the SGT members a voice in exactly what field trips and funding the school would have, SGT members said.
“When parents believe they have a voice in their schools and there is an open forum for them to have that, school communication is strengthened.” Lembeck said.
Beverly, who works as a special-education teacher at Park Street, said she got on her school’s SGT because she wanted to be involved.
“Education is important to me, a total priority,” Beverly said.
A graduate of Marietta City Schools, Beverly said parents have more of a voice now that the district is a charter system.
“We had PTAs, and that’s how parents made their voices heard. Not only can we make our voices heard now, we can influence,” Beverly said.
Her 5-year-old son waited on a couch in the main office for the meeting to end and peeked in on his mother as she and the team discussed classroom technology and reading assessments.
“I love it,” Beverly said.
On the other end of the district is Marietta High School’s SGT.
Philip Goldstein, Marietta councilman and community representative for the SGT, said he enjoys the input he has been able to give on how the school is run.
During his three years on the board, Goldstein said he hasn’t seen much of a downside to being a charter system school.
“The flexibility pays off and allows more to be done. More than the structured ‘it can only be done this way’ kind of thing,” Goldstein said.
Lembeck said she meets with each SGT at least twice a year, and consults with them on big decisions.
When deciding how to make up the lost instruction time from snow days, Lembeck called SGTs and spoke with principals as to what directions they wanted to go. If there are any board policy revisions or changes to the school calendars, SGTs are consulted as well, Lembeck said.
Lembeck believes parents in the district have a greater understanding of how funds are received and spent, and are now comfortable with asking for tablets and funding for robotic equipment.
“We have not had trouble maintaining representation in our schools. I think parents and community members need to be asked and made to feel valued. In most cases, it’s worked well for us,” Lembeck said.
Cobb BoE hesitant community will respond the same
Cobb Board of Education Chairwoman Kathleen Angelucci said she is still researching all of the board’s options.
There are many positives that come with charter systems, such as flexibility in class sizes and course schedules. The increased flexibility would allow the board and the district to better meet the individual needs of students, Angelucci said.
However, in areas where schools have struggled to maintain active and viable school councils, Angelucci is unsure the SGT model would work.
“Maintaining school councils has been an issue in some schools; governing boards may be hard to sustain long-term,” Angelucci said.
Scamihorn said it might be nice to have the flexibility to change funding for certain programs or the option to increase class sizes without having to ask the state for waivers. He remained uncertain about becoming a charter system, citing the same hesitations as Angelucci.
“Even now, we have difficulty keeping some of our school councils intact,” Scamihorn said. “It’s pretty hard to make decisions if you can’t get people to fill the positions.”
Fellow board member David Morgan, who represents south Cobb, isn’t sure becoming a charter system will be a silver bullet to engaging more of his area’s parents in schools, but at this point, he is willing to try anything.
“We have to figure out a way to deliver parent engagement and involvement,” Morgan said.
Morgan worked as a teacher at Kipp Vision Academy, a charter school in Atlanta, before moving to Cobb, and said parents were much more involved there than they are at his south Cobb schools.
Parents were asked to sign agreements at the beginning of each school year, promising to stay involved or risk having their student kicked out of the charter school, Morgan said.
A similar method might work for his schools, Morgan said.
As a normal district system, Morgan doesn’t have the option of tying student enrollment with parental involvement.
Morgan predicts some parents in his schools would thrive on a SGT but isn’t convinced becoming a charter system would keep everyone involved at the level he would like.
To that, Marietta Superintendent Lembeck said time has helped. In the five years the district has been a charter system, Lembeck said the community has learned a lot.
“I do think that overall, when you talk about the community engagement, it’s never easy and always has to be deliberate. It has to meet the needs of the community,” Lembeck said.