Working With Your School Committee:
A Student Guide
Section Five: Working With the School Committee
As SAC to SC members, you have a variety of channels available to you to accomplish your goals. In this section we will explore formal ways to be involved in the decision making process. This guide to various avenues should be used as a starting point. Since each school system functions differently, your plan should reflect your system's unique needs.
Once you have chosen a major issue, decide upon a goal and a plan for achieving it. The goal should be realistic, definite and worthwhile. Once you have decided on a goal, develop a plan for accomplishing it, a plan closely tied to the goal. For instance, if you want to start a lacrosse team, begin by researching the status of lacrosse teams in other towns. Lobbying the athletic director, principal and school committee is also important. But using another example, if you want to involve students in the process to hire a department head, networking within the school system is more important. In any plan, there are five major steps.
- Research the issue
- Develop a plan
- Lobby for support
- Make a presentation
- Follow up the decision
Research the Issue. Your main objective during this phase is to collect as much information on the topic as possible. Start by talking to the student council, principal and friends for ideas or sources of information. You may want to check a local library or the internet for information. Then gather facts. Surveying and/or interviewing students, teachers and administrators will provide concrete facts.
Gathering group opinion is equally important. Initial contacts will be important when you begin lobbying. Ask administrators, teacher association leaders and school committee members for their initial comments. By tabulating your survey results, you will have a gauge of general opinion. Once you have a sense of how students, teachers, parents and administrators feel about the issue, work on coming to an agreement in your SAC to SC. If all agree, this is called a consensus.
Develop a Plan. Having a solid knowledge of the issue you are ready to develop a plan. Begin by expressing your goal. The next section should detail your entire process (both what has and what will happen). The main section of the plan will be a compilation of your research results. Highlight important findings by underlining, capitalizing, or bolding them. Next, present your analysis of the data and a rationale for the plan. Your plan will end with a request or recommendation for a certain action and a note of thanks to those involved or a pledge for continued involvement.
Lobby. Lobbying is crucial, but often overlooked. Present a draft of your plan to as many people as possible - the school committee, faculty members, PTSA, principal and superintendent. Ask for their comments and criticisms. When you meet with people to discuss the plan, be open to their comments. By being open and responsive at the first stage, you will have more support later on.
After these initial discussions, make changes you desire in the plan to initiate compromise. Then meet with the leaders again, asking for support. Respond to any criticism with polite, but firm answers. It is important to listen to and be open to criticism. Before you leave, thank them for their time. If they support you, ask for a letter expressing that view. Write them a note reviewing the conversation for your records.
Make the Presentation. When the plan is ready, share it. Distribute a copy to everyone you have involved so far. In addition, you should make copies available to the entire student body and school community. Make sure people have your written plan in advance of any speech you may make.
The final presentation should be to the person/people who make relevant decisions. Be as confident, knowledgeable and relaxed as possible when meeting with them. Your speech should highlight the contents of the written plan. Answer their questions honestly, focusing on areas of agreement. If they approve of your plan, congratulate yourselves. If not, work on ways for improvement.
Follow up. Regardless of the final outcome, it is important to follow up on your initial efforts. Write notes thanking all who have helped you as well as those who took the time to at least hear you out and consider your proposal. Be sure to work on the implementation or revision of your goals, too.
All of this structured information may be helpful for major projects, but many important issues are settled during a single school committee discussion. At these times, being a SAC to SC member requires quick thinking.
Attend Meetings Regularly. First of all, it is important to be there. The SAC to SC members should talk together regularly to make sure there is at least one other member in addition to the SAC to the SC chairperson at each meeting. Moral support is always helpful. You will gain credibility if you attend meetings regularly. It is virtually impossible to follow issues when you are absent.
At the meeting, be courteous. Listen at the meetings, learn about the issues on the agenda before you go, and take notes so you can report back to students. When you want to speak, wait to be recognized by the chairperson.
One of the hardest issues for SACs to SCs to handle is how to represent the student body.
The idea of elected representatives is based in part on the belief that a small group can act responsibly on behalf of everyone else through debating issues and making decisions. But how do these people know when they are making good decisions based on adequate information?
In Congress, for instance, each representative has a staff to research and learn how people back home feel. But this approach can put students from groups such as the SAC to SC in an awkward position because not all students will know who you are, even if they elected you. Furthermore, they probably will not seek you out to tell you their opinions. You have to work to become a group recognized as a voice, for students if you want to the students to come to you with their opinions.
One way to think about representation is to see it functioning on different levels for different purposes. Sometimes it is better to represent yourself as an individual; other times, the SAC to SC can present itself as a group of elected representatives. More often you will work with the student government in your school. Less frequently you will represent the entire student body, or the larger school community of staff, students and parents. Let us look at some examples of each of these.
Speaking for Yourself. You should give your own opinion and identify it as such when you have not had sufficient preparation time, or when the school committee is expecting only a first reaction from a sample student. This might come in the form of a straight question, "What do you think, Jane?" Also, if you have some experience as an SAC to SC member, or some form of expertise, say, as a basketball player asked to respond to sports cutbacks, you can speak as an informed individual. The longer you sit on the committee, the more chance you have to build trust between yourself and the school committee. After a while they may call on you for an opinion because they sincerely are interested in and place value on what you say. This normally happens only over time and is a result of careful cultivation.
Speaking as the SAC to SC. You may come to know more about certain topics than other students because you sit on the SAC to SC. Highly technical issues, such as budget or energy conservation in school buildings, require special knowledge that comes from listening regularly at school committee meetings and conducting research. As a group, you may speak on behalf of students as informed advisors to the school committee without checking with the student body. Students will hopefully believe in the SAC to SC's ability to do a good job of acting on behalf of students; which is your primary function.
Other times when the SAC to SC can speak for students are:
- When you are short on time or when scheduling problems prevent you from checking with students; or
- When all members of the SAC to SC agree that student opinion is obvious without a poll.
The best tested method of keeping in touch with students is to use the student government structure in your school. Funnel survey questions or informal votes through the student government members to each homeroom. Report on every school committee meeting to the student government. Use the existing organizations to take your plans and achievements back and forth between the students and you. Several topics that are most appropriate for consideration by the student government are: school rules, budget decisions, hiring procedures, academic policy changes, and teacher evaluations.
If your student government is not as strong as it could be, SAC to SC members should work with it. Often student government members are searching for topics to discuss or work on. You will be helping each other by working together on a few projects. They can be helpful to you by using homeroom representation, or some other resources for getting to students quickly.
Contacting the Student Body. Communicating with the student body is a major responsibility. Since you were elected to represent students, it is important to convey student opinion and act as an advocate for students. Although these two responsibilities usually coincide, there are times when they may differ. Section Four discusses ways to generate a "student opinion" by surveying many people. This type of process is good for learning students' preference on issues such as whether school should begin at 7:30 a.m. or 8:30 a.m. Other times, a "student opinion" should be a statement of what student leaders perceive as in the best interest of the student body. For example, if the school committee is developing selection criteria for a director of health, you may be able to provide more constructive input than could be gained from a student poll. In most circumstances, it is clear which method is most appropriate.
When you are confronted with conflicting opinions, it may be difficult to develop a position. Let's assume that the school committee will be voting on the athletic budget. They are deciding between eliminating the hockey team or cutting the intramural program. After polling homerooms, you learn that sixty percent of the students would rather have a hockey team than intramurals. From researching student participation, budget and personnel issues, the SAC to SC overwhelmingly believes that maintaining an intramural program helps more students and saves money. The dilemma is whether to follow your conscience or be a conscientious representative. One solution is to present both views to the school committee. Although this decreases the strength of the position, it may be the most honest approach.
Since it is hard to present a strong opinion with a divided constituency, you need to anticipate student opinion accurately and know when it is a good idea to ask for clarification. The following three suggestions should be used only as a possible guide. You may wish to create your own list of issues which may or may not result from student input.
When the average student is knowledgeable about an issue, a survey should be used. Grading systems, attendance policies and graduation requirements are examples of such issues.
If the topic is funding for extracurricular activities, scheduling or policy decisions, consulting the student council is a good rule. This gives you an opportunity to educate students before collecting an opinion.
On complex and political issues, you should act as a representative of the student body. For debates over building improvements, staffing levels, district lines or committee appointments, students may not understand an issue well enough without more information to voice an opinion. When students make random checks on a survey, the results may be misconstrued.
After estimating the student body's knowledge of and interest in a topic, you can decide what type of "student opinion" is in their best interest. Regardless of how you develop a position, be sure to share it with the school community.
Dealing with the School Community. The school community includes students, faculty, staff, administration and parents; in other words, everyone involved with the schools. If a formal report or a plan that affects the whole community appears before the school committee, it is time to include everyone in the process of monitoring the movement of the document and commenting on its content. School closings, major remodeling, shifting of student populations or racial tension are examples of community-wide topics. You might consider ways of informing the community about issues on a more regular basis.
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