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'Parent trigger' strikes again in California

Courtesy of Parent Revolution The 24th Street Parent Union members have been working since for months to collect signatures for a "parent trigger." 

LOS ANGELES – The first time Amabilia Villeda tried to fix her children’s school, she joined several dozen fellow parents and teachers in a protest outside 24th Street Elementary.

That was three years ago. Villeda and the rest of the loosely organized group believed the struggling school just a few miles west of downtown Los Angeles needed a jolt. They collected a couple hundred signatures from parents and community members who decided the first step toward improving the abysmal test scores and poor campus climate should be to oust the principal, Villeda recalled.

But they didn’t make much of an impact. None of the school or district officials really seemed to notice, Villeda said, and the effort folded quietly.

The 41-year-old mother of three expects Thursday to be different. That’s because she and fellow parents have formed their own union, spurred to action by California’s so-called “parent trigger” law and the well-funded education advocacy group Parent Revolution.

“We have the opportunity to make a change at this school because now we have the right support to do it,” Villeda said in Spanish. “They weren’t listening to us before, and with the law, now they’re listening.”

California’s Parent Empowerment Act of 2010, known as the “parent trigger,” enables parents to organize and force major overhauls of underperforming schools, from replacing the principal and half the staff to shutting the schools down altogether. The legislation – now enacted in various forms in seven states and up for consideration in some 20 others – requires petitioners to secure signatures from parents representing at least 50 percent of students at an eligible school.

After two months of canvassing the neighborhood, running phone banks and soliciting parents at a table outside campus, the 24th Street Parent Union leaders believe they have collected about 65 percent of the signatures they need, representing more than 300 parents, said Derrick Everett of the Los Angeles-based Parent Revolution. The school has about 685 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

On Thursday, the parent union plans to present its petition to officials at the Los Angeles Unified School District office. The petition threatens to force the school into the control of a charter operator unless parents can negotiate major changes in the way the school is run under the district. Specifically, the parents are demanding stronger leadership, better academics, safer and cleaner facilities and a new culture of high expectations.

The 24th Street campaign is going public one week after parents at Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto, Calif., celebrated the first parent trigger success in U.S. history. It took Desert Trails parents nearly two years and a bitter legal battle to win approval for a charter-school conversion.

The first parent trigger attempt was at McKinley Elementary in Compton, about 10 miles south of 24th Street, and it ultimately failed to advance. Parent Revolution, which lobbied for the law and bankrolls interested parents, has helped drive all three campaigns, along with several others still in the early stages of organizing throughout California.

In both Adelanto and Compton, the trigger push proved divisive and hostile, with counter-campaigns emerging against the petitions and each side accusing the other of harassment and intimidation. Proponents of the law blamed teachers union members for instigating the opposition. Opposing parents questioned the political motives of Parent Revolution, which is funded by major education policy players such as the Bill & Melinda Gates and Walton Family foundations. (Disclaimer: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is among the funders of The Hechinger Report.)

With one win on the books, Parent Revolution organizers say they hope this next campaign has a more cooperative flavor.

“As this movement progresses, the idea of parent power becomes less novel and more normal,” said Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution. “We hope to demonstrate that parent trigger can be collaborative – teachers and district officials coming together with a kids-first agenda.”

United Teachers Los Angeles Elementary Vice President Juan Ramirez said his union membership isn’t completely opposed to what the parents want and agrees that changes should be made by working together. The “restart” model in the parent trigger law – which could reopen 24th Street under a charter operator – might mean the school’s teachers will lose their jobs.

“The concern we have is that sometimes the parents are misled, and (Parent Revolution) doesn’t explain to them the whole issue of this parent trigger law,” Ramirez said. “Many teachers also feel threatened because the outside operators, they want to fix schools on their own terms, and I think that’s where the problems start.”

As they recruit parents, the 24th Street petitioners cite the grim statistics: More than 80 percent of third-graders and 71 percent of fifth-graders can’t read at grade level, and the school’s 8 percent suspension rate is the second highest out of all elementary schools in the Los Angeles district. Last year, 24th Street scored a 667 on the state’s Academic Performance Index, a 1,000-point scale that ranks California schools. That was 32 points lower than Desert Trails – the school that won its parent trigger push last week – and well below the state target of 800.

“It hasn’t been that difficult to rally parents,” Villeda said. “Many parents say that if significant changes don’t happen at this school this year, they’re going to take their kids out.”

School officials acknowledge that’s already happening, as parents vote with their feet by taking their children to the suburbs or to charter schools, including Crown Prep Academy, which shares a campus with 24th Street. The school’s leaders cited declining enrollment as one of many problems that need tackling in a proposed plan under the Public School Choice process, a program the Los Angeles school district launched in 2009 to turn around failing schools and open new, higher-performing ones.

The 2012-13 plan for 24th Street, guided by the principal with input from teachers and parents, addresses many of the school’s major shortcomings, including stubbornly low test scores, ineffective teaching methods and student concerns about bullying and cleanliness. It also highlights some problems that start at home, such as high absenteeism and transiency rates. The plan calls for several solutions, including better systems in place to check for student understanding and promote re-teaching, more comprehensive teacher evaluations and increased parent involvement on school committees.

But the parent union leadership says the plan doesn’t go far enough, and argues that the process of developing it was too rushed and unclear for parents who wanted to participate. They also lament having fewer options for change after the teachers union fought to exclude outside groups from submitting plans under the Public School Choice program.

“That was something we fought hard for because changes should come from inside,” Ramirez said. “We noticed there were a lot of politics being played with the school board.”

Villeda said it’s hard for her to vote with her feet because she can’t drive. She also doesn’t think she should have to pull her kids out of the neighborhood where she’s lived for 15 years – though she was outraged when her third-grade daughter couldn’t read but was still being promoted grade after grade. By fifth grade, she was reading at a third-grade level.

Parent Laura Wade, 37, said 24th Street shouldn’t get a pass just because it serves a low-income area – 100 percent of students there are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged. Eighty percent of its students are Hispanic and 18 percent are black. Nearly half of the students don’t speak English at home.

Wade, who volunteers in the classroom nearly every day, said the school is also in desperate need of greater stability and better communication among parents, teachers and administrators. Since her 5-year-old, Zarion, started kindergarten last fall, she said he’s had 11 teachers, most of them substitutes.

“I’m a new parent coming into the school, and I’m frustrated that my kid has to be exposed to numerous teachers in his first kindergarten year,” Wade said. “They need to put teachers in there who stay and make sure that their students learn.”

It’s unclear how the L.A. school district administration and board will respond to the 24th Street trigger effort. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been a vocal supporter of parent trigger laws, but he isn’t in charge of the district.

The principal of 24th Street, Renee Dolberry, referred all questions to the district office. Superintendent John Deasy said he will not comment before a petition is submitted.

Parent Revolution organizers say they’ve learned to tweak their approach with each campaign – from how to avoid technical errors on petition forms to ensuring that the parents, not the organizers, choose the method of reform. The advocacy group officially started working with 24th Street parents in August, and rented an office space to serve as the parent union’s headquarters. Similarly, in Adelanto, Parent Revolution rented a five-bedroom house to serve as the Desert Trails Parent Union headquarters and community center through next spring.

The Desert Trails petitioners took some heat for having parents sign two petitions – one that called for a charter school, and one for changes under the district – but submitting only the charter-school petition. The strategy was to use the charter petition as a negotiating tactic.

At 24th Street, parents are submitting only one petition, which calls for reopening the school under either a charter operator or a partnership model within the district. But at the same time they proceed with the trigger process, they will try to negotiate changes with the district in hopes of meeting their goals without the restart.

“The dual track ensures that either through open negotiations or the parent trigger process, the parents of 24th Street will have a good school for all students next fall,” Everett said. “This does not have to be an antagonistic process, but the parents demand a good school for their children, and they have every right to do so.”

The 24th Street parent union stresses that its top goal isn’t to become a charter – though that’s the same thing the Desert Trails parents said before going that very route.

“I hope charter is the last option for 24th,” Wade said. “I feel that the district and the teachers and us parents, we should come together to make this school the best.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Filed under: K–12, Daily Report

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