Schools' use of improvement councils varies

rheaton@islandpacket.comOctober 21, 2012 

Supporters of state-mandated councils designed to boost community involvement say the groups can be one of the best things going at a public school.

But their effectiveness and level of activity often depends upon the individuals comprising them in any particular year, according to Carol McMillian, who is the district office's liaison to SICs.

Recently, for example, the school improvement council at St. Helena Elementary School has been helping the district with a battle plan to boost achievement, improve student behavior and increase community involvement. The council has prioritized items on the official "action plan" that district officials devised, and it also has been asked to help foster better communication with parents and the community.

An attempt Friday to reach the council's chairwoman, Crystal Warren, was unsuccessful.

School board Chairman Fred Washington Jr. says the St. Helena council is doing good work, although he'd prefer it be even more active.

Washington, who last year was named SIC Advocate of the Year by the S.C. School Improvement Council, said there's not an SIC in the district that's modeling what he envisions.

"I haven't had a chance to get to all of them, but nothing has stood out," he said. "There isn't one that makes me say 'Yes, this is it.' "

WHAT ARE THEY?

The councils, which are mandated by state statute, must include at least two parents, two teachers and two community members, according to Tom Hudson, the associate director of the S.C. School Improvement Council. Principals sit on them as ex-officio members, and high school students elected by their peers are also members.

By law, they're responsible for overseeing the school's progress on its five-year plan, which usually includes goals such as "boost student achievement" or "actively engage the community."

They also present a report to parents each April. Most of the Beaufort County SICs reports are brochure-like, highlighting new programs in the school, accomplishments and student achievement data.

WORK VARIES

Some SICs do more. The SIC at Port Royal Elementary -- a finalist for a statewide award last school year -- established scholarships for students to attend after-school programs, sponsored a school clean-up day and coordinated the donation of school supplies and uniforms from community organizations, for example.

An attempt to reach Brian Herrmann, the chairman of that committee and a candidate for school board, was unsuccessful.

In other districts around the state, SICs are called upon to serve as an informal cabinet for superintendents, and some choose to host school-board candidate debates, Hudson said.

McMillian, who ensures the councils elect officers on time and meet other deadlines, said some school principals seek input from SICs more than others.

Attempts to reach a handful of past and present SIC leaders were unsuccessful.

Although McMillian said no one school seems to consistently struggle to recruit members or meet regularly, there are times when schools may struggle to make a quorum at their meetings, or have trouble recruiting members to yet another organization at the school.

Hudson said participation in SICs is varied across the state, but the easiest way to boost them is for principals to make the council's role clear.

"If you really advertise the nominations process and really share the info on what your SIC is doing, then it becomes easier," he said.

DISTRICT COORDINATION

A year-old school board policy calls for two meetings each year between the Board of Education and SICmembers, giving SIC members an opportunity to ask questions and present ideas.

One such meeting was held in February, but the second of 2012 has not been scheduled.

Last year, there were also regular meetings of groups of SICs. At those gatherings, district staff presented information relevant to a geographic cluster of schools.

Hudson said those things put the district on the right track to utilizing the councils more effectively.

Washington said he hopes a level of parent and community involvement, similar to what seems typical at a charter school, can be achieved with more vigorous councils.

The councils, Washington said, could both be used to boost schools and as a method for school board members to learn more about a school's needs.

"My goal, as long as I'm around, is to help that evolve to a point where there is literally more community control for a school," he said.

An attempt to reach Michael Rivers, who represents the St. Helena area and is vying for the school board's District 3 seat along with Washington and Bernie Schein, was unsuccessful.

Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.

Related content:

S.C. School Improvement Council

Beaufort County school board to meet with school improvement councils Tuesday; Feb. 20, 2012

Plans to boost St. Helena Elementary's performance take shape; Sept. 29, 2012

Port Royal Elementary SIC, school board chairman recognized; March 29, 2012

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