Monthly Archives: June 2009

Democratic Decision Making

With the authority and empowerment given to charter schools comes the opportunity for real democratic leadership and decision-making.  The need to feed the bureaucracy that a large system of 1.1 million children requires falls away, clearing the way for school- and community-based priorities to come to light.
In a big system a good idea can take more than two years to really take root.  As a veteran of the New York City public school system, I have seen reforms come and go, and I have also seen reforms come and linger.  With changing chancellors, priorities naturally change, and some reforms have stuck around but haven’t received the support that they initially required to be successful due to these new priorities. 
One example is School Leadership Teams (SLT), which in theory have an important say in the development of each school’s annual Comprehensive Education Plan (CEP), in itself possibly another example of this phenomenon.
In practice, the shift to treating SLTs, which include representation by parents, school leadership, teachers and other stakeholders, as the central locus of long-term decision making and goal setting for schools requires more than just a policy change; it requires a cultural and attitudinal shift.  In many schools, especially in at-risk communities, there are so many competing pressures on the administration that there is little recourse other than to make big-picture decisions and set goals independent of the SLT.  In fact, when I was an SLT officer as a district school teacher less than ten years ago, there was an ongoing debate about exactly what role the SLTs were empowered to play with regard to budgetary and other decisions made by the principal.  I believe in some communities that debate is still going on!
Link Improvement Plan Renewal Retreat
These kinds of issues have not been a factor in our preparation for the 2009-10 school year and with it, the hugely important Charter Renewal Application.  Instead, beginning with a retreat in early May that invited  representation and input from administration, board, parents, teachers and non-teaching staff, Harlem Link has followed a process that truly takes into account all voices to build the strongest possible school improvement plan.  Following the retreat, in which after an involved discussion five broad priority areas were established, each and every employee of Harlem Link joined a design team based on one of those five priorities.  The teams met four times for a total of approximately 12 hours to hammer out a five-year achievable goal in the priority area as well as a detailed action plan to accomplish interim goals for the next year.  The result, our Link Improvement Plan (LIP), describes every effort our team will undertake in the next 12 months. 
Link Improvement Plan Renewal Retreat
In short, the charter governance vehicle has given our school community the opportunity to execute, swiftly and efficiently, the good ideas and the fostering of true ownership that could take years to accomplish in the larger system.  As we prepare our 2009 charter renewal application based on the goals and actions in the LIP, we also know that we have the strongest possible vision and plan for a future in which our mission of graduating articulate scholars who meet or exceed state standards and active citizens who learn and serve in their communities will be realized.

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