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A group of parents threatening to invoke California’s controversial “parent trigger” law has spurred Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) officials to sign a partnership agreement addressing the parents’ top concerns at an elementary school in South Los Angeles.

LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy is expected to visit West Athens Elementary School at around 1 p.m. Pacific Time Friday to sign the formal agreement — a move that enables the school to avoid the hostile parent-trigger petition campaign that has played out in neighboring communities.

Parent trigger law
Members of the 24th Street Elementary School parent union meet at a park near their children’s Los Angeles school to discuss the next steps to force a major overhaul of their struggling neighborhood school. They’re among the first in the nation to use the so-called “parent trigger” law to transform a school. (Photo courtesy Parent Revolution)

“We wanted to make sure that at West Athens, we opened communication and that we listened to the concerns and that we really built bridges, as opposed to having it so polarized or having opposite sides,” said Rosalinda Lugo, an LAUSD instructional director who took part in the talks with parents that led to the new agreement. “We wanted to avoid the destruction of the school; we wanted to avoid having the teachers feel attacked or threatened.”

The 13-page agreement includes a commitment by the school and district to bolster school behavior and safety plans, improve communication between parents and teachers and provide increased professional development and support for teachers. The document also specifies that $300,000 will be pumped into new positions to help with student discipline and extra support services, including funding a full-time psychologist, a part-time psychiatrist social worker and a full-time attendance officer.

Friday’s signing ceremony marks the culmination of several months of talks among school officials, teachers and a parent union guided by Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles nonprofit formed to promote California’s Parent Empowerment Act, the formal name for the parent trigger law.

The law, now on the books in various forms in at least seven states and under consideration in several others, enables a majority of parents at a low-performing school to force a major overhaul through a petition campaign, with reform options ranging from replacing the principal and half the staff to converting the school into a charter. It has only been tested a handful of times since enacted by California’s legislature in January 2010, and parent-trigger campaigns proved fiercely divisive and hostile in communities such as Compton and Adelanto.

At West Athens Elementary, about eight miles east of Los Angeles International Airport, the parent union decided to hold off on launching the petition campaign and instead urged the district to meet with parents to negotiate less aggressive changes. The parent union, called the Aguilas de West Athens or AWA, garnered the support of about 50 to 60 members who met weekly over the past several months, but never collected a single signature for a formal parent-trigger petition.

“The members of AWA recognize that they have certain rights under the Parent Empowerment Act but, because of productive and good faith discussions with School District personnel leading up to this Agreement, have elected to work collaboratively with the School District and the administration of West Athens Elementary,” states the partnership agreement Deasy is set to sign at a ceremony Friday afternoon.

Gabe Rose, deputy executive director of Parent Revolution, said he views the collaboration as a positive sign that these types of efforts can lead to changes without disrupting and dividing communities. In this case, the parent trigger served as leverage, a negotiating tool to ensure parent concerns were heard, but invoking the actual law didn’t prove necessary, he said.

“Districts have seen the story play out enough times now, I think, that they understand they have to take organized parents seriously because they have real rights and they have real power if they stick together,” Rose said. “It’s in their interest to sit down at the table with parents and have parents work things out without parents having to force them to do something.”

But throughout the nation, many teachers’ unions, policy leaders, public school officials and even parent advocacy groups remain wary of parent trigger laws. Critics argue the law is a corporate-backed privatization tool under the guise of parent empowerment; they are particularly concerned about the law being used to force charter school conversions, thereby stripping away elected school boards from some schools. Opponents have further charged that parents have been bullied or intimidated into signing petitions, and that parent trigger laws are inherently problematic because they pit parents against teachers, administrators and other parents. United Teachers Los Angeles has held multiple meetings addressing teacher concerns about their schools being “targeted” by parent-trigger organizers.

Parent trigger law
Desert Trails Elementary School principal David Mobley, left, is handed 465 signatures representing nearly 70 percent of students from the school by Olivia Zamarripa after a Desert Trails Parent Union press conference where parents hope for a dramatic overhaul of the low performing school while trying to use California’s so-called Parent Trigger law at Desert View Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif. (Photo by DAVID PARDO, Victorville Daily Press)

At Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto — the first time parent-trigger law was used to force a charter school conversion in the nation — the campaign led to a lengthy court battle and heated accusations of harassment, fraud and even criminal acts from parents on both sides of the debate.  At Weigand Elementary School in Watts, a parent union worked to get the principal ousted — only to see every teacher at the school request to be transferred elsewhere, too.

Parent Revolution organizers say they’ve learned from mistakes made in past campaigns, and now attempt to ensure that the parents themselves are behind the efforts to change schools; they also say they are trying to do a better job of including teacher input in the process.

The West Athens partnership agreement explicitly states that a key goal should be resolving any budget shortfalls without turning to teacher layoffs, and includes a commitment to ensuring teachers get more training and resources, especially because they have to implement the new Common Core State Standards.

The parents who launched their own union at West Athens cited concerns over student behavior and safety problems, along with lagging academic performance, Rose said.

Indeed, the latest test scores show West Athens fell about 80 points short of the statewide target on the 1,000-point Academic Performance Index. California schools are supposed to aim for the 800-point benchmark, and West Athens scored 720 in 2012-13, state data shows. The failure to meet academic growth targets has kept the school on the federal watch list for underperforming schools known as Program Improvement since 2006.

But the school has also been improving in recent years, and even earned a “Title I Reward: High Progress” distinction in 2013-14, for being among schools serving a high population of low-income students that made academic improvement over the previous three years. A quick visit to the school’s Facebook page shows several positive parent reviews, and highlights activities like spirit week to boost attendance, a family movie day, science center field trips and a recent donation of 200 tennis shoes by the nonprofit Shoes That Fit to benefit students.

Fortunately, said Lugo, the teachers and administrators echoed a similar set of concerns and goals as that of the parent union, making the process of developing the partnership agreement go relatively smoothly. She emphasized that the agreement itself is only the first step in bringing about significant changes to improve the school.

“There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done,” Lugo said. “We need to continue working and dialoguing and clarifying the common goals, both the teachers and parents.”

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