The Message of School Reform
Cathy Henson has been involved in education reform from the top down. Now, she’s helping the cause at the grassroots level.
"I’ve always been an advocate of parental involvement, because unless parents get involved in education reform, there’s nothing to sustain any reform at all," says Henson, an attorney who heads up the Georgia School Council Institute, a nonprofit organization she founded in 2000. "Our goal is to become a go-to organization for parents, legislators and business people, to be a tool for getting out the message of school improvement."
The institute was formed to help, aid and advise Georgia public schools in implementing local councils. The A+ Education Reform Act of 2000 requires every school in the state to elect a seven-member council by Oct. 1, 2003 to review curriculum and student achievement issues.
But the legislature didn’t provide Georgia’s Department of Education with any oversight or enforcement capability to ensure each school does, in fact, elect a council. "And there aren’t any sanctions if schools don’t follow the law in this regard," says Henson, who served on the state board of education from 1999-2003 and was the first woman to be elected chair. "Each council is mandated to include two parents elected by [the school’s] parents; two teachers elected by the school’s teachers; two business persons, one of whom is appointed by the local board of education and one elected by the council’s other five members; and the principal."
Henson estimates that to date, about 95 percent of Georgia’s 2,000 schools have actually elected their councils. "Of course, we don’t have any regulatory authority, but we can use some peer pressure to encourage schools to get actively involved in implementing their councils," Henson says. "And now that many councils have been elected, we’re encouraging and counseling them to get involved in curriculum development and student achievement."
Councils are supposed to meet monthly. "When I travel around the state, I’m often asked why so many PTA meetings are so sparsely attended. I ask, ‘What exactly do you discuss at your PTA meetings?’ More often than not, it’s subjects like fall carnivals, playground equipment and the like. But local school councils offer an opportunity for parents, teachers and the community to get involved in some real substantive educational issues."
While Henson and the institute continue to advise local schools on their councils, another major initiative is its Web site, www.georgiaeducation.org, which analyzes student achievement data, school council training and resources, education news and links to education information resources.
The institute receives information on each school, such as test scores and demographics, from the Department of Education’s regional education service agencies. "Then we input that data into our system and we’re able to provide profiles of each school and how it compares to other schools in the state," says Henson.
The Web site’s "test scores" capability provides a view of test results at the state, regional, system or school level from state assessments. Three-year trend analyses and comparisons with state and system information are available. The site also can compare test scores of a selected school or system to other schools and systems with similar demographic information.
"This is how you can identify achievement gaps," Henson says. "For instance, we’ve already seen that on SAT scores, we’re doing a better job with our at-risk kids than with our higher-scoring students. We’re beginning to theorize that our teachers need to be better prepared to challenge our best and brightest.
"Until now, local business communities didn’t have the ability to see how their schools are doing," Henson says. "Many times, people will tell me that their schools don’t need reform; that their teachers are doing great; but then I look at their school’s data, and see that the school comes up short in many test scores. This can be a dispelling-the-myth type of tool as well."
Henson is committed to maintaining the 501(c)3 organization for as long as possible.
"The hard work is done, insofar as the councils themselves are concerned," she says. "The next stage is raising their awareness level, and making sure people understand there is vehicle out there where they can get involved with the issue of student achievement."