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South Los Angeles parents are likely to make history Tuesday by becoming the first in the nation to force a public school overhaul through the controversial “parent trigger” law without a court fight.
The so-called parent trigger process, now making its way through state legislatures nationwide, lets parents at underperforming schools organize and petition for major reforms, from firing the principal and half the staff to ceding control of the school to a charter operator.
In California’s first two major parent trigger attempts—first at McKinley Elementary in urban Compton and then at Desert Trails Elementary in the tiny desert town of Adelanto—the efforts driven by parent unions proved divisive and hostile.
Parents called the police on one another, students of feuding parents lost friends, school meetings turned into shouting matches and teachers from the surrounding areas participated in counter campaigns to get parents to retract their signatures from the petitions. Pro-trigger parents challenged their school districts in court, where the McKinley push fizzled in 2011 and Desert Trails parents prevailed this past fall.
This time is different.
The parent union at 24th Street Elementary in South Los Angeles hasn’t faced major opposition from within its community, thereby avoiding a court fight. The parent petition sailed through the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board on a 7-0 vote in early February with enough signatures to represent 69 percent of the school’s students. Superintendent John Deasy, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and even some teachers union members have voiced their support in working with the parents to improve student achievement. And now, the 24th Street parent organizers have convinced the district to partner with a local charter operator to take over the struggling school; Tuesday parents get to vote on that.
At the same school three years ago—just before the enactment of California’s Parent Empowerment Act of 2010, the official name of the state’s parent trigger law—parents complained that district officials were silent after dozens of school community members presented a makeshift petition to oust the principal of the low-performing school.
“Before, the district wasn’t involved,” said Esmeralda Chacon, parent of a third-grade boy at the school. “Now, we’re going to start seeing changes.”
Tuesday, the parents who signed the petition to overhaul 24th Street Elementary will have the chance to go to a public park a few blocks from the school to vote on one of four separate proposals for a new school plan and operator. The parent union leadership, which has been meeting weekly for months, has urged the 359 parents eligible to vote to choose the joint operator option that essentially creates two separate schools: one run by LAUSD for students in preschool through fourth grade, and another run by Crown Preparatory Academy for fifth- through eighth-graders. The other three options include solo operator plans by the LAUSD, Crown Prep and another local charter operator, Academia Moderna.
Under the hybrid plan favored by parent union leaders, all LAUSD employees at the school would have to reapply for their jobs, and parents would get to be a part of the hiring committee.
“There’s a lot riding on this — to see how the second largest school district in the country is going to make this succeed,” said David Phelps, spokesman for Parent Revolution, the nonprofit advocacy group bankrolling the 24th Street parent union and lobbying for parent trigger laws nationally. “The district first of all is acknowledging that ‘we messed up when we were in charge of this school, this school was failing, and now we have a unique opportunity to get it right.’ ”
Parents who don’t sign the initial petition aren’t allowed to vote on the final operator. Opponents of the law say that method strips the democracy out of a neighborhood school by letting a small number of parents decide its fate for generations to come. But Phelps said that organizers are merely following state regulations. In Adelanto, that meant 53 parents voted in October on the charter conversion of a school that enrolls about 600 students.
At 24th Street, all of the roughly 685 students in grades kindergarten through fifth grade qualify for free or discounted lunches. State Department of Education data shows that 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 LAUSD. The school ranks in the bottom 2 percent of the 563 elementary schools in the district. The school, in a residential community just a few miles west of downtown Los Angeles, also faces a challenging English learner population. Nearly half the students don’t speak English as their first language at home. Eighty percent of its students are Hispanic and 18 percent are black, the state data shows.
Before the parent trigger petition, 24th Street Elementary was already slated to undergo a reform plan developed by the principal with input from some teachers and parents as part of the district’s Public School Choice program. But the parent union organizers argued that the plan didn’t go far enough, and that it didn’t allow outside groups to submit proposals.
“We are speaking up and we are putting ourselves, our faces, on the fight for any parents who think changes aren’t going to happen,” Chacon said.
Among their demands, the parents called for stronger leadership, better academics, safer and cleaner facilities and a new culture of high expectations. The parent union received eight initial letters of interest of potential operators in late January. Shortly after that, the parent union approached the district about creating a hybrid plan with Crown Prep, a charter operator that has shared the campus with 24th Street Elementary since 2010. Crown Prep boasted an 801 score on the 1,000-point state Academic Performance Index in 2011-12, compared to 24th Street Elementary’s score of 666.
“The district came back and said, ‘We would like a second chance to turn this school around,’ ” Phelps said. “The parents have fundamentally said, ‘OK, you’ve got your second chance. We like your proposal. We like the proposal from Crown Prep. We want you to work together.’ ”
The local teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, has also not been a major obstacle, Phelps said.
However, that might not be the case at Parent Revolution’s next trigger test.
At Weigand Avenue Elementary School in Watts, about 12 miles southeast of 24th Street Elementary, a large group of faculty members is already expressing concerns about another parent trigger petition handed over to the district last week. Those parents have no interest in seeking charter school operator bids, Phelps said. Instead, the Weigand parents’ top priority is to replace the principal.
Since California passed its law in 2010, more than 20 state legislatures have considered versions of parent trigger bills. Last month, parent trigger legislative proposals cleared the state senate in Oklahoma and Georgia, and on Thursday, Florida’s House green-lighted a parent trigger bill.
Parent Revolution, whose backers include the Gates, Walton Family and Wasserman foundations, now has a budget that has climbed close to $5.5 million and a staff of about 45, including its California and national teams, Phelps said.
The 24th Street Elementary parent union plans to announce the winner of Tuesday’s vote on Wednesday.