Parents of charter school students are enjoying newfound democracy in school-level governance councils where their thoughts on school budgets, personnel and student achievement can be put into action.
At the seven charter schools in Gainesville and three in Hall County, parents elect parents and teachers elect teachers to represent them to school and district leaders.
John Lilly, an Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy father and council member, said the council operates as a mini school board. He said he “never dreamed” he would get elected, but is thrilled to be shaping his children’s educational experience.
Lilly said the council also fields complaints from other parents and uses that information to better the school.
“It takes a lot off the principal to be the whipping boy. They can just call one of us and we can help,” he said. “And if you’re mad with the system, you can put your name in the hat, run for the council and get your feelings expressed. We’re just real pleased with what’s going on.”
Gainesville charter councils and the council for the World Language Academy, Hall’s first charter school, began meeting last school year. Since then, each council has established its own bylaws and procedures and contributes much to school board decision-making this year, parents and administrators said.
State law requires each charter school to have its own governance council comprised of at least seven members who are charged with shaping the school’s unique community-driven mission as well as increasing student achievement and community involvement.
The teachers, parents and business leaders sitting on the panels also help the principal manage the school’s maintenance and operations budget and make personnel recommendations to the board of education.
Enota Principal Susan Culbreth said at her elementary school, for example, the council has helped school administrators determine how to best manage Enota’s maintenance and operations budget of about $153,000.
Dyer said the Gainesville Board of Education heeded governance council recommendations for new principals at Gainesville High, Fair Street IB World School, New Holland Core Knowledge Academy and Centennial Arts Academy.
Dyer said while her district’s seven councils are in their infancy, they already have proven to be valuable resources to administrators and board members.
“I would rather the schools decide what’s important for them. We can allocate the money, but it’s the school’s power to decide how to use it,” Dyer said. “It takes a big burden off of me and the school board. Then they can use it the way it best benefits their school. One school may do it a way that’s very different than another school, and that’s the beauty of it.”
Enota parent Heather Hayes served as the school governance council’s chairwoman last year and now serves as the board’s ex-officio. She said the governance model is “absolutely brilliant,” but it was challenging to mold that new authority into a well-oiled machine.
“It was overwhelming at first,” she said. “They just give you this three-ring binder and say, ‘This is your school.’”
Like all members of Gainesville charter councils, Hayes spent a day training with Georgia School Board Association officials to learn the details of district and state educational systems.
“For me personally, it was a huge eye-opener in the process of educating children,” she said. “Becoming involved with the governance councils takes you from seeing it as my child’s classroom, to my child’s school, to the school district and the state level, about what the laws are and funding. ... All children come through that process with different needs and different resources.”
Culbreth said parents learn a lot about the new education era.
“For John Q. Public, their only frame of reference is public schools 20 years ago. Now it’s a different world,” she said.
Council members said they must follow all the open meeting laws of school boards, and have agendas, minutes and meeting times posted at the school. They also invite parents to attend the meetings, held monthly at some schools, every other month at others.
To become a candidate for a charter school governance council, parents can contact their child’s school in early spring before elections, Hayes said.
Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield said he welcomes council input that is directed to district administrators and school board members. He said, too, that he believes parents who have insight into school processes and budgets have a better understanding of the current state of public education.
Enota council chairwoman Cindy Bryant said council members do gain an understanding of the difficulty of operating schools amid relentless budget cuts. But she said it is empowering to allow councils to govern their own schools and survey parents and students to better mold educational opportunities.
“It’s not as new as it was, but it’s groundbreaking, especially with the good organization at central office that we have now,” Bryant said.
A council member, the council chairperson and principals from each Gainesville school also meet with Dyer multiple times each year to make the district a cohesive unit.
Kay Law, a veteran first-grade teacher at Enota, is one of the council’s three teachers. She said parents on the council are quick to get teacher input on how children learn and what can be done to improve teachers and instruction. Limitations on time, and sometimes resources, can make teaching a trying profession, Law admits.
“It can get frustrating, but this is a great avenue for us to talk through things,” she said.
Fair Street IB World School parent and council member Christy Rassel said the council has been able to expand instruction time for gifted math students. And at Enota, a council-led parent survey resulted in the creation of a science lab that replaced a culinary arts center, Culbreth said.
“I think it’s a huge benefit,” Rassel said of the advent of charter governance councils. “I think it helps a school grow because the parents get to know more about the details of how a school runs, whereas an outsider might just be critical of how something was done.”