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California's Parent Trigger 

How McKinley in Compton became the first school taken over by parents under a radical new law

Thursday, Dec 9 2010
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A small, somewhat shy woman with long black hair stands before them. Her name is Lorena, and she is hosting today's meeting at her home. She moved to the Los Angeles area from Mexico more than 20 years ago because the United States offered better opportunities. Now, she says in Spanish, "The door to my house is always open."

Lorena later explains through an interpreter why she got heavily involved in the Parent Trigger. "I've noticed that my [fourth-grade] daughter has, instead of progressing, gone way, way down," she says of her special-needs daughter. "She’s struggling academically, and I've noticed because of her poor grades, her self-esteem is very low."

Lorena grows visibly upset as she describes how "the teacher tells students that if they don't do their homework, she will rip up their permission slips [for field trips]. I understand there has to be a consequence for not doing your homework, but I wish the teacher would come to me. Many of these children already have mental-health issues, and that threat makes things worse."

click to flip through (3) PHOTO BY TED SOQUI - Compton parents and Parent Revolution organizers Zarah Sique, Shirley Ford,Mary Najera and Shemika Murphy.
  • Photo by Ted Soqui
  • Compton parents and Parent Revolution organizers Zarah Sique, Shirley Ford,Mary Najera and Shemika Murphy.
   
 

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She also wants her daughter to go to college, but right now she's focused on her distraught child, whom nobody at Compton Unified appears capable of helping.

Even more troubling, on three occasions Lorena found her daughter roaming the streets when she was supposed to be in a Compton Unified after-school program. "No one was supervising her," she says. Fearing for the girl's safety, Lorena no longer lets her daughter stay after school for the extra help she badly needs.

Yet Lorena says she had to wait weeks before she was allowed to speak to McKinley Elementary's principal, Fleming Robinson. "The only way I can talk to the principal is by appointment," she says. "But what if I have a pressing issue?" Robinson’s aide said he would have no comment.

After Lorena finishes greeting the group, DeTemple lays out the situation: Even though the number of signatures they've gathered is well above 51 percent, DeTemple and his crew want more. "There are parents of more than 100 students we've never met before," he says. "We don’t know where they are."

They've certainly tried to find every parent. Since mid-September, field organizers have canvassed a large chunk of the 10-square-mile city of Compton, knocking on hundreds of doors, walking its sidewalks and driving its streets, asking people if their children attend McKinley, making contacts. Staffers say they're not only organizing parents for the Parent Trigger but also for longer-term engagement in their children's schooling.

Nor will this be the only school it organizes for a parent takeover in California. Parent Revolution, with 10 full-time staff members and a $1 million annual operating budget, is funded by blue-chip philanthropic endeavors, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

But Compton will act as the template and the touchstone, because it was the first. Over the summer, DeTemple set up a computer program to track trends in the progress of his staff's work. Once a parent signature was obtained, DeTemple input that parent’s address in the program, and a green dot appeared on a digital map of Compton. If a particular block in McKinley Elementary's feeder area showed no green dots, he'd ask one of the five salaried organizers to make a follow-up visit to the block.

But they haven't found the parents of about 100 of McKinley’s 438 students.

Parental information isn't public — and just about the only place it's stored is at the Compton Unified School District. DeTemple believes some parents work two jobs, some children live outside the attendance boundary, and some parents don't interact with other parents and are somewhat invisible.

When organizers do make contact, DeTemple says, eight out of 10 parents sign the petition.

DeTemple then brings up the main task at hand for the parents — choosing the perfect day for the "petition drop."

Parent Revolution, DeTemple tells them, still must validate the signatures, and he wants the parents to consider a good day for media coverage, which leaves out Mondays and Fridays. He suggests Dec. 7 or Dec. 8. Remembering that Dec. 7, 1941, was the "day of infamy," when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, DeTemple can’t help but eye Dec. 7. "It’ll be a surprise attack," he quips.

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