Principal Ty Muma estimates that 40 percent of parents at Frontier Valley Elementary School in Douglas County don’t know what the “SAC” is.
Although all public schools in Colorado are required by law to have a “School Accountability Committee,” the entity might be aptly described as the studious stepsister of the eye-catching PTA.
School accountability committees — which go by a variety of names and acronyms at different schools, including “Site Accountability Committees,” “School Advisory Councils” or “Building Accountability Committees” — are made up of parents, school employees and community members. And while the councils are little-known and may not be particularly sexy, they can be one of the best ways for parents to weigh in on how a school spends its money, what programs it offers and the strategies it uses to improve.
So, what kind of parent should join School Accountability Committees?
“It’s the parent who wants to do more than fundraise,” said Kelly Corbett, chief academic officer for Brighton 27J school district. “It’s the parent who wants to get involved in change…the big picture thinkers.”
Diving into data
Myanna Schimpf, who has three children at Adams 14 schools as well as a preschooler, said that while some parents prefer stuffing folders or decorating bulletin boards, parents serving on accountability committees will be brainstorming, synthesizing information and offering feedback to administrators.
“I always tell parents these are things you should know because as a tax-payer, this is where your money is going,” said Schimpf, who is co-president of the District Accountability Advisory Committee in Adams 14 and a member of the school-level committees at Rose Hill Elementary and Kearney Middle. “The more you know, the better your school runs.”
In Muma’s experience as a principal, SAC members “want to look at data. They want to look at numbers.”
Those numbers can pertain to anything from class sizes to TCAP scores to the school budget. Although SACs typically function as advisory committees with the principal getting the final say on an issue, Muma said the panel is “a great sounding board.”
Often, SACs designate one member to attend meetings of the District Accountability Committee (DAC), which serves a similar advisory and accountability function districtwide. SACs are required to meet at least quarterly, but many hold monthly meetings.
Making an impact
All districts run their SACs a little differently. For example, in Brighton 27J, the work of the SAC is folded into each school’s parent-teacher organization, said Corbett, who coordinates the District Accountability Committee.
In Adams 14, where SACs are known as BACs or “Building Accountability Committees,” every school holds its monthly meetings at Adams City High School, just prior to the District Accountability Advisory Committee meeting. Dinner, childcare and translators are all provided. Since adopting a central location and adding family-friendly amenities about a year ago, DAAC meetings now attract around 150 participants up from 10-15, said Schimpf.
While SAC members often find themselves discussing test scores and school improvement plans, meeting talk touches school issues large and small. One topic that came up at the Rose Hill Elementary BAC a couple years ago was the problem of quick turn-over among new teachers. The group worked with the principal to come up with a way to ensure new teachers felt welcomed and valued during their first year of the job. Money was set aside so that new teachers had an extra “stipend” to spend on supplies or items for their classrooms.
Asked if the plan worked, Schimpf said, “I believe it did because we still have a lot of those teachers here.”
At Frontier Valley, Muma said conversations begun at SAC prompted improvements in both the school’s website and communication with parents through what are called “Thursday Folders”.
In Brighton 27J, Corbett said parent members have contributed by pushing for clarity and simplicity in how documents are presented, such as the long, intimidating “Unified Improvement Plan.”
Despite the more direct involvement in school operations that SAC membership offers, consistently attracting parent members to SAC or DAC meetings is a challenge at many schools. Corbett said one reason is that school accountability doesn’t always resonate with them.
“It’s a constant struggle for us as an organization,” he said.
For that reason, he invites every parent who calls with a complaint to come to DAC meetings. One mother, who he described as “madder than a hornet’s nest” when she contacted him, is now one of the committee’s strongest members.
At Frontier Valley, there are usually six parent participants at SAC meetings. Muma said hot-button issues increased traffic at the meetings at two points in the last five years. In one case, a convicted sex offender moved into the school neighborhood and parents were concerned about student safety. In another, there were concerns about proposed changes to the school’s four-track schedule.
“If your community is really happy, you don’t get a big turn-out at your SAC,” he said.
About our First Person series:
First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.