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Parental Involvement Cuts Both Ways

Involvement of parents in the education of their children has long been a goal of school districts. But even when the objective is achieved, there's no guarantee of consensus, as Chicago Public Schools are finding out ("Program to Bridge the Gap With Parents Draws Fire," The New York Times, Feb. 19).

The Office of Community and Family Engagement, which was created last July, has dedicated itself to reaching out to parents and community groups to make them an integral part of the educational process. Yet the office has encountered parental resistance to such proposals as a seven-and-a-half-hour day and school closings.

The latter was on display when the Chicago Board of Education voted on Feb. 22 to reform 17 schools by closures and by other drastic measures ("Chicago Shake-Up Targets 17 Schools," The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 23). Many parents protested the move in spite of the appalling performance of the targeted schools. Exacerbating matters, a coalition of Local School Council members has sued the district, claiming that it is in violation of the Illinois School Code for not working collaboratively with the governing bodies of most neighborhood schools.

In many ways, the situation in Chicago mirrors what is taking place in other large urban districts as they attempt to improve education quality. That's because public schools in urban areas serve outspoken heterogeneous communities that do not always agree on the specifics of plans aimed at achieving the overall goal.

It's here that strong leadership is crucial to creating consensus. Unfortunately, the average tenure of a big-city superintendent is 3.6 years, according to the Council of the Great City Schools. Few talented people want the thankless job because of the impossible demands. For example, Kansas City, Mo. over the past four decades has had more than two dozen superintendents. When the district hired John Covington, there was hope that he would stay. But despite initially winning support to close nearly half the schools, he abruptly quit in Aug. 2011 after only two years at the helm.

In general, the larger the district, the harder it is to find effective leadership, and even harder to retain the right person. But it can be done. Thomas Payzant spent 11 years running schools in Boston and by most accounts was successful. Carl Cohn headed the Long Beach, Ca. district for ten years, winning the Broad award for urban district excellence in the process. The pressures are daunting, but there are qualified candidates who can rise to the occasion.

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