It was advertised as D.C. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's first major effort to draw parents and teachers squarely into the process of running their schools, something they had sought for years. This spring, for the first time, school communities were invited to help decide how their school money would be spent.
Parents of the city's public school students have long argued that they should have a bigger voice in determining how money is spent at their neighborhood schools and what their children learn. They wanted to help decide, for example, whether there should be a reading resource teacher, and what materials should be used, and what kind of arts program the school should fund.
The theory -- endorsed by Ackerman -- has been that school communities know best what their children need and that if they can manage their own schools without much interference from downtown, student performance will rise.
But as the school year draws to a close, the reports from various "local school restructuring teams," or LSRTs, are mixed. At some schools, the new system appears to have worked well; at others, less so.
The Wilson Senior High School community was delighted to join in the decision-making. But at Lafayette Elementary School, the restructuring process was carried out in fits and starts -- especially when the principal stalked out of a meeting, upset that a parent had talked to a newspaper.
And at Hearst Elementary School, the process ended in such acrimony that the cohesiveness of the school is in danger. Some angry Hearst parents are now questioning whether Ackerman and Hearst's new principal, Shirley Hopkinson, ever intended to let parents have a real say.
"There is a strong perception among parents throughout the city that the . . . planning process is designed to give only lip service to parental input while DCPS, with the assistance of principals, continues to make all the real decisions," Hearst parents Anne Herr and Karl Jentoft complained in a letter to Ackerman.
School officials, calling such a contention nonsense, say that there are always kinks in a new process and note that in many schools, the community-involved planning was a success.
Lafayette participants, for example, said they were ultimately pleased with their school plan and praised school system administrators for their help. Those who helped plan spending and programs at Walker-Jones Elementary School said that the experience was not ideal but that it was definitely a good initial effort.
"It seems to have gone very well in most cases," said Joyce Jamison, assistant superintendent for Division 2 elementary schools. "We have schools where they worked well all along, and we have some schools where there have been concerns all along."
In the early 1990s, then-Superintendent Franklin L. Smith created local school restructuring teams. The 12- to 15-member teams, composed of the principal, teachers, parents and some other school community members, were supposed to meet regularly and help govern the school. Teachers elected teacher representatives, and parents elected parent representatives.
Some schools took the process seriously, and some teams helped principals choose programs and do other planning -- though major spending decisions were still made downtown. At other schools, no teams were ever set up.
When Ackerman became superintendent last May, she promised to allow school communities to decide how their money would be spent. First, she devised the so-called weighted student formula, a new way of budgeting that allocates money to the schools based on the number of students and their needs. Then, she put individual teams to work this spring on their school plans.
Teams were asked to assess the actual needs of the school instead of working from their school's old plan. But by the time the teams were set up, the schools had no more than six weeks to write their plans -- and team members were essentially being trained in how to do it as they were meeting to make decisions.
Many participants said there was not enough time to do a comprehensive job, though others said they were able to get it done.
"It's a positive sign that people felt bad they didn't have time to do a good job," said Mary Levy, counsel for the education advocacy group Parents United. "A lot of people expected indifference. We had people pitching in and wanting to do a good job."
School officials agree that time was short but say that teams could not have started earlier because the weighted student formula wasn't approved until later in the school year.
Individual school plans were sent downtown for approval, and many were returned to the schools for further work. Sometimes there were big problems: The numbers didn't add up. Sometimes the problems were minor: Administrators wanted more details on particular programs or staff choices.
Team members say the decision-making process worked well at schools with strong parental involvement and good parent-principal relations. But there was often trouble at schools where there have been divided communities.
"An LSRT works really well when you have a principal secure in his or her position and not threatened by the idea of sharing power and not overwhelmed by the administrative tasks or whatever challenges the local school throws up," said Signe Nelson, a parent at Takoma Elementary School. "If the principal wants to sabotage it, the principal has all kinds of structural ways that make it very easy to do."
At Takoma, Nelson and other parents said, the process was undermined when the new principal, Mary Grant, decided not to recognize elections for parent representatives held before she arrived -- and appointed her own parent members. She was concerned because fewer than 10 parents had participated in the election.
Grant, whose decision was upheld by school administrators, said that she followed proper rules and procedures and that her team process is going "very well." But some parents have filed a grievance with the school system.
The worst problems seem to have hit Hearst, where, ironically, the process initially went smoothly. The school has a strong record of parental involvement, and the team jumped into the task with relish, devising new ways to meet budget targets and meeting with school administrators to make sure the team had permission for certain initiatives -- including one to eliminate the principal's position and have the 180-student school run by an assistant principal.
Hopkinson, Hearst's new principal, has clashed with parents over the past year on a number of issues and attended some meetings but missed others, according to team members. After the plan, signed by Hopkinson, was turned in, team members say, she complained that she hadn't approved the plan, which she felt was a personal attack on her.
Parents said it was not intended to be an attack on Hopkinson but rather a practical way to save money.
Hopkinson declined to discuss the controversy. Audrey Donaldson, assistant superintendent in charge of Hearst, said parents did not receive permission to eliminate the principal's position.
An independent mediation team sided with the central administration in its rejection of the team's plan for Hearst, and 11 of the 13 members resigned, with some parents deciding to pull their children out of the school.
"I deeply regret that DCPS has left my family no choice but to join the throngs of others who have fled the city for the friendlier pastures of suburban schools," parent Andrea Carlson wrote to Ackerman this month.
But despite these and other difficulties, some parent activists said they are pleased with the team process overall and encouraged that Ackerman has started this effort.
"I realize there were tons and tons of problems out there," said Parents United co-chair Delabian Rice-Thurston, "but this represents real potential for decision-making by parents in D.C. schools."