Ann Bonitatibus Dissertation Defense

Deliberative democracy: A space for school boards and parents in public eduation policymaking

Ann N Bonitatibus, University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

Research indicates that in the No Child Left Behind era of public education, local districts with elected school boards may be perceived as relinquishing control over policies that affect their school system. With the locus of control coming into question, school boards may struggle with how to involve parents in local decision making. Therefore, it is essential that boards of education openly engage parents by exploring and reflecting on how parent voices can influence the policies that govern public schools. This qualitative study examines how, during the course of approximately 10 months, a seven-member school board involves parents at its public meetings during policy-making processes. Specifically, one way for a school board to engage parents in a policy-making process is to employ deliberative democracy. Thus, this is a qualitative inquiry that, through two case studies, examines a school board's deliberative democratic processes and the parents' participatory stances during public meetings as policies are established or modified. The purpose of this research is to inform school boards, policymakers, parents, and other educational leaders on how elected school boards can preserve a locus of control in decision-making processes at the local level by engaging parents in policymaking. The primary data collection methods included public meeting observations, a school board survey, and interviews. Findings presented through narratives and thematic analyses reveal scenarios where deliberative democratic tenets were exercised. These tenets included purpose, intent, procedures, practices, and reciprocity. In both case studies, parents adopted various stances such as advocate, proxy agent, and expert. However, throughout the processes, study participants noted tension between formal meeting procedures and their desire for informal dialogue. Limitations included selective homogeneity of participants in deliberative processes, root cause analysis for parent participation, and the challenges of local space. Implications for school boards, parents, and deliberative democracy are discussed. Further areas for research could consider the use of electronic media in deliberative democracy, the presence of affective domains in procedurally-steeped processes, the possibility of micro-deliberative practices, and the leveraging of deliberative democratic processes that reclaim local space.^

Subject Area

Education, Policy|Education, Philosophy of

Recommended Citation

Bonitatibus, Ann N, "Deliberative democracy: A space for school boards and parents in public eduation policymaking" (2013). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3562262.
https://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI3562262

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Since August 02, 2013

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Ann Bonitatibus, the new principal at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology, arrived in mid-July and was impressed by the students’ enthusiasm at the school’s Summer Institute program.

“The kids had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and they were so excited to be here,” she said. “I think that was just a small glimpse of what I’m going to see every single day in the regular school year.”

Bonitatibus, who succeeded former principal Evan Glazer, most recently served as superintendent of the Conejo Valley Unified School District in Thousand Oaks, Calif. While there, she examined her beliefs and realized she yearned to be a high-school principal or classroom teacher again, as those were the jobs where she had made the biggest impact on students’ lives.

“I believe in the power of public education and what it does for children,” she said. “I really wanted to think about what brought me the most joy.”

TJ provided a new challenge, as she never had led a magnet school, and offered her the chance to integrate a science curriculum with the humanities. She is keen on getting back in the classroom and has offered to co-teach lessons with some instructors or teach classes in order to give them relief time to plan with other teachers.

When examining the school’s improvement plan, faculty will look at homework loads and try to determine if the tasks are too time-consuming or only seem so, she said. Teachers may be able to lighten their workloads by collaborating and creating common lessons and assessments, she added.

“I’m very concerned about the daily level of stress that our students and staff experience,” she said. “We’re going to be talking about how [we can] restore some personal balance.”

Workers now are finishing renovations at the school. The facility has a new domed entrance surrounded by columns, similar to the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. An art gallery near the entrance will feature rotating exhibits of students’ work.

The renovated school has hallway commons areas, named after scientists, where students can study and socialize. “These serve as really great collaborative spaces for students to work in and they also serve basically as adjunct classrooms for teachers,” she said.

The school has the collegiate feel that every area can be a learning space if a student wants it to be, Bonitatibus said.

Square cubbyhole lockers hold students’ supplies and belongings and, with few exceptions, are not secured with metal grating.

“We don’t have traditional lockers,” the principal said. “We have a high level of trust among our students.”

Hallways also store wheeled carts containing 32 laptop computers, which can serve as mobile computer laboratories.

The facility’s planetarium soon will have  seats that recline far backward and a projector to shine images on the domed ceiling.

TJ also has interior courtyards that allow students to get fresh air in a safe, secure setting, she said.

The school will have slightly fewer than 1,800 students this fall and 140 faculty, plus support staff.  TJ draws students from Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, plus the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church. Its first class graduated in 1985.

Bonitatibus holds a bachelor’s degree in communications education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a master’s in administration and supervision from McDaniel College and an education doctorate in organizational leadership from the University of Pennsylvania.

She spent eight years as a math and English teacher in the Frederick County (Md.) Public Schools, then serving as an assistant principal at two of that district’s schools and as principal at New Market Middle School and Catoctin High School.

Bonitatibus later became associate superintendent of secondary schools and director of high schools with Frederick County school system, then served as its chief operating officer before taking the Conejo Valley position.

Bonitatibus comes from a family of educators. Her mother taught Spanish and her father, an electrical engineer, instructed adult-education classes in that field.

Originally from Erie, Pa., Bonitatibus is a big fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers and NASCAR. She also plays the clarinet and enjoys spending time with her nieces, who are identical twins.

Hardish Nandra, president of the school’s Parent-Teacher-Student Association, predicted Bonitatibus would bring a positive impact to the school.

“The impression that many of us share is that Dr. Bonitatibus brings, along with her vast experience as an educator and as an administrator, a heightened sense of accountability, responsibility and empathy for her staff and the student community,” he said. “That augurs well for our future success.”

Bonitatibus has held many leadership roles during her career that have prepared her well to lead one of the nation’s top schools, said Regional Assistant Superintendent Fabio Zuluaga.

“Dr. Bonitatibus has demonstrated a comprehensive understanding of STEM education and the needs of gifted learners, while making sure students have a comprehensive high-school experience,” he said. “Finally, Ann’s strong communication skills will allow her the opportunity to build trust and respect through engagement, positive action and reflection.”

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