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On a recent afternoon in Compton, Mary Najera of Boyle Heights is making a sale in the peach-colored dining room of a tidy home. But she isn't selling cosmetics or Tupperware. She's pitching to a young mother a radical new tool of school reform in California — the Parent Trigger.
"If we get 51 percent of the parents to sign a petition and favor a transformation," Najera tells the mother, Carolina, in Spanish, "you can create a change."
Najera shows Carolina the petition. It presents parents with the power to take over and open a charter school at Compton’s McKinley Elementary School.
Carolina regards Najera with a serious expression. On a nearby wall, a colorful ceramic mural depicts Jesus and his apostles at the Last Supper. Najera says: "This is going to be historic. It's never been done anywhere before. And we want you to take full advantage of your rights. But we need to work together. Power comes in numbers, and we need parents to join to make the changes for their children."
Carolina nods. She knows McKinley Elementary isn't any good: She received a letter from the Compton Unified School District, explaining that the school scored a lowly 658 on the Academic Performance Index (API), the statewide school achievement measure. McKinley has the worst "similar schools" ranking possible in California, a deplorable one out of 10, meaning the school is worse than almost all inner-city, minority elementary schools in California.
Carolina reaches for the Parent Trigger petition. “I want to make this better,” she tells Najera.
Carolina later explains that she came to the United States from Mexico with the dream of a better education and more fulfilling lives for her children. “We need to create change [at McKinley], not only because my kids go there, but for everybody,” she says. “We, as parents, need to do what’s best for our kids.” Her signature inches the petition drive to nearly 60 percent of McKinley Elementary School’s parents.
The California Parent Trigger law was passed against huge odds by the Democratic-controlled, teacher union–friendly state Legislature, becoming law this year. The California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers lobbied hard for its demise, but they were beaten by what one Sacramento insider later described as a "ragtag" bunch of minority parents and fierce reformers, who seemed to materialize from thin air.
The trigger gives parents the power to decide the fate of 75 failing California schools by petitioning the school district. It’s up to California parents to choose which schools.
Mothers and fathers who pull the Parent Trigger can pick four options:
1. Establish a charter school in the school buildings;
2. Bring in a new staff and exert some control over staffing and budgeting;
3. Keep the school intact but fire the principal; or
4. Shutter the school entirely and send the students to better, nearby schools.
But first, these hyperlocal reformers must get at least 51 percent of all parents whose children attend that school to join them in signing off on the idea.
In Compton, quietly, for weeks, five staff organizers from the L.A.-based Parent Revolution reform group and a core of 15 McKinley parent leaders have been doing just that.
It's been a curious meeting of minds and cultures. Parent Revolution executive director Ben Austin, a Democrat on the California State Board of Education, was an aide to President Bill Clinton and served as L.A. deputy mayor under Richard Riordan. Organizing director Pat DeTemple is a veteran organizer for labor, who worked on Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. Deputy Director Gabe Rose is a former UCLA student body president a few years out of college. Those three directors, five Parent Revolution staffers and 15 Latino and black Compton parents who emerged as leaders and organizers have worked closely together, sailing beneath the radar of the California Teachers Association, the California Federation of Teachers and Compton school officials.
L.A. Weekly was invited to watch the process unfold as the parents met in family rooms and fast-food restaurants, plotting to take over McKinley Elementary.
Compton Unified School District officials knew something was afoot, but for weeks they may have assumed a charter firm was trying to make inroads. The district has steadfastly refused to let any charter schools open to compete against the city's disastrous schools.
But it wasn't a private firm — it was parents the district should have worried about.
On Dec. 7, Najera, Carolina and other organizers and parents do indeed make history at a jam-packed press conference of about 120 people in the small backyard of one mother's Compton home, where another parent, Ismenia Guzman, stated: "It's time for a change."
The crowd — including parents, children and reporters from The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CNN, local TV channels 2, 4, 7, 11, radio news stations KPCC and others, as well as aides to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — then clambers into two yellow buses and arrives at Compton Unified School District headquarters on Santa Fe Avenue.
There, Guzman hands over a book of parent signatures to acting superintendent Karen Frison.