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Education

With Exclusive, Unfettered Access to Parent Trigger Organizers in Compton, L.A. Weekly Examines Charges of Deception and Harassment Made By Their Opponents

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Mon, Dec 13, 2010 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge Parent Revolution organizers Shirley Ford and Mary Nareja (center) with McKinley Elementary parents - TED SOQUI
  • Ted Soqui
  • Parent Revolution organizers Shirley Ford and Mary Nareja (center) with McKinley Elementary parents
Once Ismenia Guzman handed over a thick binder of parent signatures to a Compton Unified School District official last Tuesday morning, Shirley Ford knew her work was far from over when it came to implementing the Parent Trigger -- a new state law that gives parents the power, through a petition, to demand changes at a chronically failing public school.

"It's just the beginning," said Ford, an organizer for Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles-based education reform group that was a major force in the Parent Trigger petition drive in Compton, which seeks to replace poorly performing McKinley Elementary with a charter school.

Ford was talking about having to do follow-up with McKinley parents, but her remarks could also be applied to the words and actions of her opponents, who were becoming increasingly perturbed.

Within a matter of days, in a Los Angeles Times article, Ford and her fellow organizers were accused by Parent Trigger opponents of deceiving and harassing Compton parents so they could obtain much-needed signatures -- according to the law, if 51 percent of parents whose children attend a failing public school sign a petition that seeks certain changes, a local school district must abide by those wishes.

The L.A. Times also wrote that in reaction to being supposedly tricked and harassed, "opponents say that 50 to 60 parents" had now rescinded their signatures from the petition.

L.A. Times reporters were not present during Parent Revolution's organizing drive, so they did not see harassment or deception tactics firsthand.

But with unfettered access, L.A. Weekly did spend several days with Parent Revolution staffers before the petition drop on Tuesday, December 7, talked at length with organizers and parents in Compton, and watched how the Parent Revolution operation worked at its command center in downtown Los Angeles.

The Weekly was not present the entire time Parent Revolution organizers were working in Compton, but from what we observed, charges of deception and harassment do not seem credible. And if those things did happen on our watch, the Weekly would have reported it without hesitation.

Some Weekly readers have suggested, or flat out charged, that we were paid by Parent Revolution to write about the organization.

The paper did not receive any kind of payment for covering the Parent Trigger story, was never offered money by Parent Revolution, and would never accept payment for working on any news event.

Parent Revolution Organizing Director Pat DeTemple and his five organizers in Compton -- Mary Najera, Shirley Ford, Christina Sanchez, Rosamaria Segura and Yuritzy Anaya -- were indeed on a mission to get many signatures within a short period of time, starting in mid-September.

During staff meetings and other times the Weekly was present, they spoke about knocking on doors, following up on leads, and meeting with parents in their homes. But Parent Revolution staffers never once talked about slick ways to deceive parents so to get their signatures.

The five organizers also appeared to know when they should stop seeking a signature from a person who wanted to be left alone.

This became crystal clear on November 22 at a McDonald's restaurant in Compton, where the women regularly got together and shared information.

On this day, as the Weekly watched and listened, the organizers went over a list of names of McKinley parents, deciding who they should talk to and who they should no longer contact. "I think she's a lost cause," Shirley Ford said about one parent, and the organizers quickly agreed to not approach that mother again.

The organizers went over the names for a half hour or so, knocking many people off the contact list. The women were still eager to get as many signatures as possible, but it also appeared they were not willing to do it at any cost.

In addition, the Weekly spent one full day each with organizers Mary Najera and Shirley Ford as they worked in Compton. Both women were always greeted by parents with wide smiles and kind words. It was a reception that would never take place if parents were harassed into signing the Parent Trigger petition, or if Najera and Ford had the reputation as harassers.

Najera, in fact, wasn't merely a paid organizer. She was a resident of Boyle Heights and a single mother of two sons with a compelling life story that deeply influenced her work in Compton.

Only a few years ago, Najera's youngest son was running with a rough crowd and attending a less-than-challenging public school. Although bright and creative, he was not getting good grades. Najera tried to work with teachers to improve her son's situation, but she met resistance.

"You fight, you fight, you fight," said Najera of that time, "and you get on the teachers' black list."

Her son then fell into trouble with the police.

Najera decided a change was needed, and sent her son to a charter high school. His best friend, meanwhile, stayed with the same crowd, eventually dropping out of the local public school. One day, Najera and her son received the news that his best friend had been shot and killed during a gang dispute.

They were devastated, but her son stayed at his school, where the course work was more challenging. He started to apply himself, stayed out of trouble, got excellent grades, and ended up going to college. Najera, who knew it could have easily been her son who was shot dead, cried as she told the story.

"How do I pay that back?" she said. "I don't have a lot of money. I don't have much to give. But that's why I'm so passionate about the work."

Parent Trigger opponents have also said that organizers such as Najera used deception to get them to sign the Parent Trigger petition.

One prominent charge of deception came from an L.A. Times article, which quoted a mother named Karla Garcia. Garcia said she was lied to and told that the petition was about beautifying McKinley. As a result, the mother said she "revoked" her signature.

Again, the Weekly was not present for every meeting with a parent, but we also find the deception charge hard to believe.

During our time in Compton, the Weekly talked with several parents in their homes. Parent Revolution staffers never placed restrictions on the content of these interviews, and parents spoke freely and from the heart. Nothing appeared to be rehearsed.

The parents, at times, even got emotional as they spoke about their own struggles and wanting better for their children.

"There has to be a change in the cycle," said McKinley parent Ismenia Guzman. "It doesn't have to be the same way for every generation."

After every interview, it was clear each parent understood exactly what the Parent Trigger petition was about: to replace lowly performing McKinley Elementary with a charter school.

If the parents were victims of deception, the lies would have almost certainly been revealed during these probing interviews, which took a half hour and longer. No parent talked about beautifying McKinley Elementary or any another off-the-path issue.

Opponents now say that 50 or 60 parents have rescinded their signatures. As of this weekend, though, those names have not been released, according to Parent Revolution staffer Gabe Rose. "They should prove it," says Rose. "They should release those names."

Until that time comes, says Rose, no one knows if those parents had actually signed the Parent Trigger petition or if that number is accurate.

McKinley Elementary Principal Fleming Robinson, who has been very active in fighting the Parent Trigger, has not responded to emails from L.A. Weekly seeking comment, and his aide last week said he was not available for an interview.

But last Friday, the Los Angeles Wave reported that Robinson had released a statement -- the Weekly never received such a notice.

In it, Robinson says, "Some (parents) have said they signed the petition but were harassed or signed under false pretenses, which included beautifying the school. A lot of parents weren't given clear information on what the petition was for."

Yet the Wave also reported that the paper "spoke to at least 10 parents and guardians ... all of whom seemed to be aware of why they signed on to pull the 'trigger' at McKinley and take back the institution they say has failed their children."

Events in Compton will continue to unfold this week, with a Compton Unified School District board meeting on Tuesday.

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.

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