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Sound of school reform is silence

Six times Bob Bouffard sounded the battle cry: Join the revolution! Help me shape the future!

Six times the principal sent notices home with the children who attend Cypress Woods Elementary School in East Lake. Six times he invited their parents to join him on the new School Advisory Council.

But when the night came last month to elect the people who will determine the future of the school and its 740 pupils, only 37 parents showed up.

It could have been worse. At Oak Grove Middle School in Clearwater, principal Pegoty Lopez sent notices to 975 parents asking them to call her if they were interested in joining her school's new council. Two called.

"I don't think the public, and particularly the parents and the teachers, realize what a sweeping change this will be," said the chairman of Oak Grove's council, Steve Thacker.

This is how sweeping: Under a state law passed last year, each school is to set up a school advisory council (SAC). The council is made up of parents, teachers, business people and residents, school staff members and administrators, even students in some cases.

Their job, starting this month, is to spend the next two years writing and implementing a plan for improving the school.

And they can pretty much do what they want.

"It would have authority like a mini-school board," Bouffard said. "It's possible it could digress from school board policy, even state law."

In fact, the state is encouraging the SACs to ignore the policies that have previously governed the school system. The state's handbook bluntly tells SAC members: "Nothing is sacred."

They can get waivers from the school board and the state to change the curriculum, pick new textbooks, maybe shorten or lengthen the class day, say education experts.

A high school's SAC could, for instance, combine English and social studies into a single humanities course. An elementary school's SAC could do away with first, second and third grade, choosing to promote pupils some other way.

"From what I've been told, the sky's the limit," said Patti Rondolino, chairwoman of the Gulf Beaches Elementary SAC in St. Petersburg Beach.

Doug Tuthill, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, calls the state law that puts the SACs in charge "an extremely radical piece of legislation."

And what the SACs are going to do with the schools "is going to be just as dramatic as the revolution that happened in the Soviet Union and in Germany," he predicted.

But there's no such thing as a tidy revolution. Even when no blood is spilled, there are often bitter struggles over shifting power.

While people like Bouffard and Tuthill are enthusiastic about the movement, others question just how messy this revolution might be and who will end up a casualty.

"It's very difficult to see how it's going to work out," said Paul Brown, principal of Dixie Hollins High School near Kenneth City.

And then there are people like Mary Anne Schmidt. Mrs. Schmidt is active in Cypress Woods PTA, but she passed up Bouffard's invitation to join the revolution. To her the SAC is a pig in a poke.

"I think it's just a cheap way for the state to see if it can improve the educational system without putting any more money into it," she said.

Playing politics

Actually, SACs have been around for more than a decade. They used to be called school advisory committees, and about all they could do was advise the principal. They had no real power.

Then along came the latest movement in education reform. It goes by several names _ "teacher empowerment" and "site-based management" are a couple.

The basic idea is this: For years state officials have tried to make all schools uniform, figuring that's the way to make sure every student has an equal opportunity for learning. But test scores and dropout rates seem to indicate that the system isn't working.

So why not turn over control of the schools to the people with the biggest stake in making them work? After all, those are the people who have complained the loudest about the failures _ the parents, the teachers, the administrators.

"I think this is the most exciting time education has ever faced," said Gulf Beaches Elementary principal Brenda Clark. "It's a chance for us to either put up or shut up."

South Carolina was one of the first to try a new system, starting in 1983, and it has been hailed as a success. South Carolina's councils advise the school board but don't have much power, although they may get more in the future.

In Chicago's 2-year-old program, though, the school councils are so powerful that last year they fired 31 principals. Some education experts say that means Chicago tried to move too fast and failed.

"In Chicago, people saw this as a chance to play politics," said Chris Pipho of the Education Commission of the States, a bipartisan think tank based in Denver.

But Fred Hess, author of School Restructuring, Chicago Style, contends the Chicago councils have been too timid. So far only a quarter of them have made some fundamental change in the structure of their school, he said.

The councils could do something radical like de-emphasize teacher lectures in favor of putting children into small study groups in which they teach one another, Hess said. Instead, most councils aren't offering anything wilder than classes on Saturday.

"They're just coming up with things that go around the edges of what they had before," Hess said.

Florida jumped on the SAC bandwagon last spring when Gov. Lawton Chiles and Education Commissioner Betty Castor pushed through the Legislature a massive education reform bill, despite strong opposition.

Some lawmakers had a hard time seeing the point of giving up state power over the schools. They accused Castor of trying to shirk responsibility for a system in trouble.

But state Rep. Tim Jamerson, D-St. Petersburg, successfully argued that it was time to allow parents "more of a say-so in how programs in their schools are developed."

The law that passed is called Blueprint 2000, because that is how long it's supposed to run: until Oct. 1, 2000, eight years away. By then, says the law, every school should have shown improvements based on the plan written by its own racially balanced, demographically mixed, democratically elected SAC.

But it's hard to have an election when there aren't any candidates. When nobody wanted to join the SAC at Oak Grove Middle School, chairman Thacker, principal Lopez and one of the teachers just picked eight parents, and that was it.

Maybe they will be able to have an election next year, Thacker said. Once the parents see how much power the SAC has, he said, "they're going to be very interested in who gets elected to those positions."

"What we've got'

For now, though, the SACs get people like Thacker, a lawyer with no background in education other than listening to what his two children tell him about their schoolwork.

"What do I know about education?" he said. "I'm just a parent."

Toni Parsons is too, but all her children have been out of school for years. Yet this 65-year-old bookstore owner has joined the Gulf Beaches Elementary SAC at the request of its chairwoman, who is one of her customers.

"I'm not sure I know that much about it," Mrs. Parsons said. "I just feel emotionally involved."

That points up what may be the greatest weakness of the SACs, Pipho said. "You're asking somebody who works another job and may only have a high school diploma to make decisions affecting the future of the school system," he said.

The state has set aside some money for training the SAC members in what they are supposed to do. Cypress Woods principal Bouffard, for instance, is planning a two-day training retreat for his SAC members at a New Port Richey hotel later this month.

According to some education experts, Bouffard and the other principals are going to play a key role in the SACs, building consensus among the members, leading the discussions on issues.

"In many ways this greatly complicates their jobs," said Tuthill, the PCTA president. "But it enhances it too."

But others say the SACs are going to siphon off the principals' power.

"The principal is losing a great deal of authority," said Brown, the principal at Dixie Hollins. "The faculty and the parents are now going to be the main authority makers in the school."

Unlike Chicago, Pinellas councils won't have the power to hire or fire staff members.

But, Tuthill said, "they will be making some major decisions in terms of staffing levels."

The change doesn't scare Sadie Brown, the principal at Oldsmar Elementary School. Instead, she is worried that the SACs are being turned loose without any direction.

"I feel we need some more definite guidelines," she said. Until the state provides some, she intends to keep in close contact with other principals about what is happening at their schools, just to make sure she is doing it right.

The state Commission on Education Reform and Accountability is supposed to be coming up with goals for the SACs, by figuring out a way to measure how well their plans are working.

That would leave it up to the SACs to figure out how to achieve those goals, said Tuthill, who serves on the commission. And theoretically the SACs could all ride off in different directions heading for the same goal.

That, he said, probably will lead to the state giving parents more freedom to pick which school their children can attend.

"Parents are going to move their children to the schools that are more consistent with their philosophy," Tuthill said.

But if the schools have to compete for students, it may not be a fair contest. An older school like Dixie Hollins High probably is handicapped by its age and location, compared to a newer suburban school like East Lake High.

"We can't compete with the new, creative, innovative schools and the beautiful neighborhoods and all that jazz," Brown said. "We'll still be an urban school."

One thing every school faces, no matter where it is or how old it may be, is the state's budget crunch. Even East Lake High senior Scott Sambucci, one of four students on his school's SAC, said that will be one of his priority issues during SAC discussions.

At a time when the schools are getting less and less money from the state to operate, "funding is probably going to be a great deal of what we deal with," said the Rev. Jack Stephenson, a member of the Cypress Woods SAC.

The state may be handing the SACs a lot of power. But to Stephenson, the state is really saying, "We can do all we want _ with what we've got."

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