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LOS ANGELES — On Friday evening, in a spare and low-lit church in South Los Angeles, 29 parents cast their ballots for a proposal put forth by Los Angeles Unified school district to overhaul nearby 20th Street Elementary. The vote of approval was unanimous. The church filled with cheers.
“This is a big step forward,” says Omar Cavillo, who has a first and a fourth- grader at 20th Street Elementary. “Now we have to make sure the district keeps its promises. We won’t stop fighting until our children get the education they deserve.”
Tucked under Cavill0’s arm was the ammunition to keep Los Angeles Unified honest: three binders filled with the signatures required by the so-called “parent-trigger” law to wrest the school from the district if necessary.
Passed in 2010, the California law permits 51 percent or more of parents at an underperforming public school to petition for an overhaul. Among the parents’ options: replace a principal, hire a charter operator to run the school, or shut down the campus entirely.
In Los Angeles, the parent-trigger law, once considered the fast track to turning struggling California schools over to independently operated charters, has instead become a bargaining chip in brokering deals with the district. The alliance between 20th Street Elementary parents and Los Angeles Unified is the latest case in which the district has skirted the loss of a public school to a charter operator. In May of last year, parents from West Athens Elementary in South Los Angeles invoked the parent-trigger law to get more teacher training, computers, a fresh coat of paint, and a $300,000 investment in new staff.
“The vast majority of times parents are using their power to make changes within the district rather than turning to a charter,” says Gabe Rose, chief strategy officer for Parent Revolution, a local nonprofit that trains and finances parents who want to use the law. “People throw around random theories that this is about creating more charter schools or making Bill Gates more money. The reality is that parents are using the law to create a new sense of urgency, to flip the script and create a new catalyst for district bureaucracies that have been inattentive to the lowest-performing schools for many years.”
Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines has shown a willingness to work with the 20th Street Elementary parent union and other parent groups backed by Parent Revolution. Some point out the district has little choice, considering its sharply declining enrollment, largely due to the influx of charter schools in the area.
“The district is learning that it just can’t shut people down,” says school board member Monica Garcia. She describes how the recession forced the district to go door-to-door explaining budget cuts and asking people to support Prop 30, a ballot measure to temporarily increase taxes to raise money for schools. The fight for survival, according to Garcia, taught the district a few lessons about the importance of better communication and building trust.
“Parents are leaders and we need them to transform our system,” says Garcia.
The parents at 20th Street Elementary are pleased with the district’s plan, which includes more professional development for teachers and projects a 25 percent increase in the number of students achieving the standard or higher in both reading and math.
The plan also places the school in a consortium with four local schools, including a pilot middle school, Dr. Julian Nava Learning Academy, and a new pilot high school, Nava College Preparatory Academy. Tommy Welch, who helped create the Nava Learning Academy and who serves as principal of Nava College Preparatory, will oversee instruction at just the five schools in the consortium, as opposed to the 20 schools for which the current instructional director is responsible.
In an April 2 letter to Los Angeles Unified, 20th Street Elementary parents requested that the school be remade into a pilot, modeled after the Nava schools, where the parents were impressed by the quality of the campuses, teachers, and student work.
“We believe that the current academic situation at our school, where almost 60 percent of our students cannot read at grade level, is unacceptable,” the parents write in the letter.
The parents worry about the school’s poor showing on the Academic Performance Index (API), the scale California has used to rank schools primarily on test scores. In 2013, 20th Street’s API dropped several points, while Julian Nava’s increased beyond the school’s growth target. (API is suspended temporarily in California because the metrics involved are being revamped).
At the church on Friday night, Lupe Aragon waved a worksheet her fourth-grade daughter had failed to complete. The page was filled with simple math: 3+3, 8-7, 6×3.
“Ask my daughter to do a fourth-grade math problem and she can’t,” says Aragon, shaking her head. “Then they turn around and give her a certificate of achievement.”
Jose Lara, central area chair for United Teachers Los Angeles, says Parent Revolution has divided parents and teachers who actually share the same goals. “They both want more curriculum, more support, and lower class sizes.”
The real harm, says Lara, has been the effect on parents who are now split among those who are working with Parent Revolution and those who are not. He predicts leadership at the school next year will face the tough task of mending relationships.
Still, Lara is cautiously optimistic. “If parents are going to work with the district, that’s beautiful, because that’s all the teachers wanted,” he says. “They are ready to roll up their sleeves and do what it takes to ensure all students get the best education.”
This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Find out about more efforts to improve California schools.