McKinley Elementary School in Compton will set a precedent in California — one that will affect children throughout the nation. It will either be the first school seized from its district by unsatisfied parents, or it will be the first school to fight back so hard it defeats a bold new chance at reform.
And it will not be the parents on either side who make this decision, though their signatures are needed. It will be the warring giants who back them.
In January, the Parent Trigger law — authored by outgoing state Senator Gloria Romero and opposed by the California Association of Teachers and the California State PTA, among others — barely passed the state Legislature. It allows parents to take over their children's school and alter it in one of four ways: transform the school into a charter, require the district to hire new teachers, fire the principal or shut down the school completely.
By September, three well-organized, sophisticated Democrats with major portfolios in politics, under the name Parent Revolution, had swooped into Compton to give the fledgling law a test run. The nonprofit Parent Revolution, led by directors Ben Austin, Gabe Rose and Pat DeTemple, runs on donations from charity titans like Bill Gates.
The choice of McKinley as a guinea pig was not arbitrary. The Compton Unified School District is one of the most troubled public school operations in California: Experts forced upon Compton Unified by the state released an audit in August saying they had "grave concern" about the ability of its schools to advance students academically.
Fewer than half of Compton students graduate from high school and just 2 percent go to college. McKinley ranks in the bottom 10 percent of "similar schools" in California with identical racial and economic backgrounds.
Still, district insiders have kept out all charter schools, even as the movement has exploded in California.
Romero, who authored the law, says that only schools on the state's Program Improvement list — meaning they're "chronically underperforming" — are eligible for a Parent Trigger takeover. McKinley is on that list.
With the help of five Parent Revolution staffers — including Mary Najera, a Boyle Heights mother who saw the positive effect a charter school had on her struggling son — the three directors traveled door-to-door around McKinley Elementary's neighborhood until 15 parent organizers were on their side. Together, the team quietly gathered 261 more Compton parent signatures. Under the law, 51 percent of parents have to sign a petition. Parent Revolution got more than 60 percent.
When the petition was delivered to Compton Unified Superintendent Karen Frison on Dec. 7, the opposition had been waiting for weeks, says Pastor Lee Finnie, a Parent Trigger opponent and McKinley parent of three. He identifies those opposed as "an extension of the PTA," led by vociferous reform opponent Cynthia Martinez, president of the PTA.
Within a couple of days, a small but loud resistance group led by Martinez hit back: At a press conference, the PTA pumped picket signs and told the Los Angeles Times they had gathered 50 to 60 signatures of parents who wanted to rescind their signatures — a claim that remains unverified yet became news nationally.
Marion Joseph, a former California Board of Education member who spent time at Compton schools, says California's entrenched PTA groups, including Compton's, act as "a handmaiden of the administration" and adds: "These kids don't have more time."
But PTA president Martinez and her colleague Karla Garcia insist they had been lied to by signature gatherers, who, they say, claimed the petition was only for campus beautification. And Martinez's ally, Pastor Finnie, says that more than 100 parents took back their signatures. Finnie won't show any proof, saying somebody has legally advised him to keep it under wraps. Parent Revolution says it has recontacted all 261 parents — and found only 12 who wanted to remove their signatures.
Meanwhile, Austin says, nine new parents have ignored the attacks on the reformers, and signed on with Parent Trigger.
But at a big district board meeting Dec. 13, where opponents of the takeover rallied confused parents, anti-Trigger sentiments became an expression of hometown pride. "Compton! Compton!" chanted many of the 200 attendees, including a couple of rows of Compton teachers, after one speaker claimed that charter schools are "only about the dollar." Another shouted: "You will not replace us!"
Revolution parents — who are now calling themselves "McKinley Parents for Change" — didn't attend the board meeting, instead calling a press conference with nationally known school reformer Michelle Rhee earlier in the day.
At the press conference, mother Marlene Romero alleged that her son's teacher, Victor Tellez, summoned her and her son, Ivan Hernandez, to school and told them that Celerity, the charter school group Parent Revolution had chosen to take over McKinley, would not accept low-performing or special-education students.