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California's Parent Trigger

Compton parents and Parent Revolution organizers Zarah Sique, Shirley Ford,Mary Najera and Shemika Murphy.
Photo by Ted Soqui

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.

Frison, who is waiting outside the building flanked by several school district police officers, smiles and shakes Guzman’s hand as journalists swarm them and shout out for comments. Guzman tells Frison, "We’re here for a reason. We have a petition. We want to turn McKinley into a better school." She then asks Frison for a written receipt for the signatures, and an aide to Frison promptly returns with one.

Guzman holds the receipt in the air and several parents and their children cheer and began chanting, "Yes we can! Yes we can!"

Frison says district officials will comment later Tuesday. But already, people in Fresno, San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose have called the Parent Revolution for help. Michelle Rhee, the outspoken reformer who closed failing Washington D.C. schools and is now launching her own $1 billion school reform group, has given advice to the Parent Revolution and met with the Compton parents. A year from now the group hopes to be on campuses at 10 to 15 failing schools in California.

For the first time perhaps in U.S. history, parents are poised to take over and turn around a failing public school on their own terms. And 74 more such takeovers will be allowed under the new California law.

"The balance of power in decision-mmaking is shifted to include not only educators but parents," says Priscilla Wohlstetter, visiting professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College and professor at USC’s Rossier School of Education.

These parent pioneers may not only shake up California but send shock waves across the nation. Former Obama chief of staff and Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel has announced that if elected, he wants to set up a Parent Trigger in Chicago.

"I can't ... ask for parental involvement," Emanuel explained to the Chicago Sun-Times, "if I'm not doing things to encourage it."

For image-battered teachers unions, it opens a new battlefront. "Anyone with any knowledge of education would be against it," assures California Federation of Teachers President Marty Hittelman. He attacks the Parent Trigger as a "charade" — a way for California legislators and campaign contributors to weaken unions while pushing a "corporate agenda."

But Compton parents are on an entirely different wavelength from union honchos like Hittelman.

"I want them to have more success in life. I want to change the cycle," says Guzman, one of the 15 Compton parent leaders. Her daughter is a first-grader at McKinley; her son is attending a Watts charter high school.

"My son is going to be the first generation to go to college," Guzman says. "He'll be the first person in the family. I want them to have more than I have."

Behind a wrought-iron fence, inside a white house in a rough Compton neighborhood, Guzman, an amiable woman whose family moved to Boyle Heights from Mexico when she was 2, sits on a green couch with other McKinley Elementary School parents, ready to tackle the day’s agenda.

With the help of Parent Revolution staffers, they are trying to decide which day to drop the petition on Compton Unified School District board members Mae Thomas, Micah Ali, Fred Easter, Emma Sharif and Marjorie Shipp.

Guzman attended school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, graduated and took online classes at Kaplan University. She never got a college diploma — not that she or her family could afford the tuition. But, she says, "My parents didn’t push me all the way." Guzman now is determined to be an influential force in her children's education. Her kids need a solid early education so they can attend a reputable university. For her, taking over and improving McKinley must happen now.

"It's going to be a big impact for everybody," Guzman says.

She's tired of promises from Compton Unified — led by board president Mae Thomas and acting superintendent Frison — who tell her McKinley Elementary's dismal academics will be fixed soon. "They're saying four years from now it's going to be at the top," Guzman says. "But in four years my daughter isn't going to know anything. We need to do something now."

A little after 9 a.m., DeTemple, the former Obama insider, calls the meeting to order. His deputy, Gabe Rose, and his professional field organizers — Mary Najera, Shirley Ford, Christina Sanchez, Rosamaria Segura and Yuritzy Anaya — are sitting between nine or 10 parents. Christina Sanchez translates DeTemple's remarks into Spanish. With the exception of one black mother, the other parents are Latino. The student population at McKinley Elementary is roughly 60 percent Latino and 40 percent African-American.    

Shemika Murphy, the black mother, has a 7-year-old daughter, who is struggling with reading. She explains, "I want my children to go to college — and it starts now. I know if my daughter has problems reading now, it’s going to affect her later." Like several other parents here, she speaks of "breaking the cycle."

 

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."

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.

 

The parents warm to the idea. Guzman goes into parent-leader mode, conferring with a few mothers. She then looks up at DeTemple and says, "Let’s pick lucky number seven!" He agrees that Dec. 7 will be a "historic day." The parents erupt in applause.

Compton Unified School District board members, their lawyers, possibly other parents and statewide teachers unions certainly will push back. But as long as 51 percent of the signatures are valid and court challenges don’t stop them, the parents in Compton are expected to prevail.

Mary Najera and Shirley Ford, a spunky black mother who lives in South Los Angeles and is another staff organizer, are happy for the parents. But it's going to be an important day for the small Parent Revolution staff, too.

Besides spending nearly every waking hour for several weeks working in Compton and thinking about Compton, the two women have been on the front lines of education reform for years. Ford and Najera helped found the Los Angeles Parents Union, an advocacy group that supported Green Dot charter schools.

In 2009, Ford and Najera, who believe a real public school education is key to saving young lives and improving the futures of inner-city kids, helped to turn the Parent Trigger into law.

According to Parent Revolution Executive Director Ben Austin, it started as a "crazy idea." "We wanted to change the game with parent organizing. There were no entry points for parents to get involved, and we wanted to get parents politically involved in their children’s education."

So he and his staff at Parent Revolution came up with the idea of allowing parents to petition for changes at a chronically failing school, essentially giving mothers and fathers political leverage over administrators and teachers unions. Democratic State Senator Gloria Romero, the chair of the Senate Education Committee at the time, introduced the bill in 2009.

Romero, an unusually independent legislator from Los Angeles, who has repeatedly defied the status quo during education-reform battles in Sacramento, immediately met stiff resistance.

"Every adult special interest in education came out to oppose it," says Romero, who describes the ensuing battle as "bruising."

Austin says Romero literally begged her colleagues for one extra vote to get the bill passed by her education committee. "I never witnessed anything like that before," he says. And once the full California senate approved it by a vote of 21-7, Romero says, "It was like a bursting of the dam. It was passed. It was real."

Najera and Ford relentlessly worked the statehouse halls, using Romero's office as a command center and pigeonholing senators and assembly members. "They were a force to be reckoned with," Romero says of the two women.

But when the bill went to the lower house, then–California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass pushed back. So Ford held a protest in front of Bass' highly visible district office on Wilshire Boulevard near the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "I thought that was a turning point," Ford says.

According to Romero, she and Bass held talks late into several nights, negotiating terms. One of the changes that Bass and others resistant to the Parent Trigger won was that only 75 schools could be transformed. "These days were intense," Romero says. "You could feel the tension in the Capitol."

Teachers union lobbyists prowled the Capitol, trying to fend off a bill that seemed to come out of nowhere. Often, when Ford talked with an elected Democrat, the politician immediately insisted on knowing how the California Teachers Association felt. At one point, literature published by the California Federation of Teachers described the Parent Trigger as a "lynch mob provision" — an ugly choice of words that outraged civil rights activists.

The Parent Trigger war revealed cracks in California's decades-long united Democratic backing for teachers unions. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former labor organizer, supported the new law. Romero, a friend of labor, was its leading champion. Yolie Flores, a pro-labor liberal on the LAUSD school board, strongly backed it, too. It passed the majority-Democrat, 80-member assembly by 41 votes, the bare minimum required. In January, reform bill SBX5 4, including the Parent Trigger and an Open Enrollment Program that lets students transfer out of California's 1,000 worst schools, was signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"People were really surprised we were able to overcome that opposition," Romero says. "But education is the most important civil rights issue. We were able to frame it that way, which helped get it passed."

It was a crushing — in fact, stunning — political defeat for the teachers unions, unlike anything in recent memory. The federation's Hittelman tries to shrug it off: "It didn't surprise me that some Democrats went for it. There are some Democrats who are just politicians and are trying to ride the latest wave."

 

The victory came with a nasty backlash.

When Romero, the Legislature's leading expert on education reform, ran for state superintendent of public instruction this year, she lost in the primary when the CTA poured millions of dollars into the candidacy of unremarkable state assemblyman Tom Torlakson. Torlakson is a solid teachers-union vote who attacked the Parent Trigger as "abandon[ing] those very schools that are in most need of our help." He was elected state superintendent on Nov. 2.

"I became a public enemy," Romero says, "but good fights are worth fighting for."

Austin, too, now faces a struggle — to be formally confirmed as a member of the California Board of Education by Democratic state legislators who are under intense pressure from angry teachers unions to punish him. Austin has served on the Board of Education for months, but Hittelman airily predicts, "He may not be on the school board in a month or so."

Austin can live with that, however unfortunate he may find it.

If things go better for the Compton children struggling to learn reading and math at McKinley Elementary School over the next year or two, Austin says, the administrators and teachers unions who have often shut out parents will no longer have a monopoly on power. "That's what the Parent Trigger is all about," Austin, says "and that's why Compton is such a historic moment."

Parent Revolution decided to focus on McKinley Elementary School and approach parents there after researching the worst school districts in California. Compton Unified, which serves 28,101 students at 40 schools, fit the bill.

In 2008, the California Department of Education declared Compton a "program improvement district," which for years had failed to improve academic achievement as defined by federal standards in the No Child Left Behind Act.

A scathing report sent to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell in July by an outside consultant found a "focus, across the district, on adult issues as priority before student needs"; "evidence that adults are not held accountable for their work, nor for their ethical behavior"; "resistance to necessary changes in order to improve student learning and instructional practices"; and a "lack of a sense of urgency related to student achievement."

Austin and his staff surveyed parents at several schools in Compton, asking if they were interested in a transformation. The parents at McKinley, with its embarrassing statewide API score and bottomed-out "similar schools" ranking, gave overwhelmingly positive feedback. "We thought Compton Unified was an important place to go, just because of the need," Austin says.

Austin sees the Parent Trigger as a social movement for parents rather than a new law.

"We see it as a new paradigm," he says, "an entirely new way of thinking about public education. That it isn’t about charters or unions or reformers or defenders of the status quo — it is simply about giving parents power to advocate for the education of their own kids. It is about acknowledging that a 'kids first' agenda is a radical departure from the status quo, and that the only way we're going to get there is to transfer power to the only people who only care about kids: parents."

Parent Revolution is a project of the Los Angeles Parents Union, which was founded by parents and the Green Dot charter schools. That connection to a popular Los Angeles–area charter school group has given critics like CFT's Hittelman the opening to complain that the law is a gimmick to create more charter schools — in which teachers are seldom unionized. UCLA professor John Rogers, an education expert, says labor leaders are worried about their longtime grip on teaching jobs. Unions have fought hard to stop the rapid growth of California’s charter schools.

Since losing the legislative battle, Hittelman has begun to take personal jabs at Austin, saying, "He's not very smart about education at all," and describing Austin, who has been working in education reform for nine years, as somebody who "just doesn't have the experience."

(Hittelman was unaware that a Parent Trigger movement was under way in Compton at the time L.A. Weekly interviewed him. The Weekly interviewed him about general points of the new law. CTA president David Sanchez failed to return phone calls seeking an interview about the new law.)

Rogers believes Hittelman has a point — that the trigger can be used as a "strategy" to create more charter schools, converting an existing facility like McKinley Elementary instead of building from scratch. "Economically," Rogers says, "these are difficult times for charter schools."

But Austin says, "The Parent Trigger is not about charter schools." Hittelman’s views are "strong-arm arguments" that ignore a substantial cultural and community difference between Parent Trigger schools and charter schools: If a charter school is created at a public school site using the Parent Trigger, that school is required to serve all children — it can't pick and choose its students, as charter schools do in California.

 

USC professor Laila Hasan, an expert on parental involvement in education, sees the Parent Trigger as a new way to get mothers and fathers engaged in schooling and make educators and administrators listen to them. "The Parent Trigger puts another voice at the table," Hasan says. "It’s not taking anything away from the unions. It's giving a voice to the parents, which they should have. Unions can’t speak for parents."

Already waiting in the wings, Celerity Educational Group, which operates charter schools in Glassell Park, Jefferson Park and Eagle Rock, hopes to operate the charter school that today is known as McKinley Elementary School.

Around the same time that Parent Revolution was researching Compton Unified, Celerity was looking to open a school in the stubbornly anti-charter district. The two organizations found each other.

It's a situation that critics might point to as evidence that the Parent Trigger is a sneaky way to put failing public schools out of business. But Austin says the need to turn around McKinley is so great, and Compton Unified's deficits so extensive, that it was necessary to bring in a charter school rather than choosing the option of merely firing the principal.

Celerity president Vielka McFarlane, a former educator and administrator at Los Angeles Unified School District, says parent input will be taken seriously if Celerity becomes the charter school at McKinley, as expected.

"The parents are the ones who triggered it," she says. "They should have a real voice in what the school provides."

In fact, several McKinley parents have already visited Celerity schools, and McFarlane plans to hold one-on-one briefing sessions with parents and their children in the coming months.

One of those parents will be Valarie McMillan, a longtime resident of Compton, who is black. Her 11-year-old son, who attends McKinley, has reading problems and his teachers have failed to help him. "His reading comprehension is not where it should be," she says.

Because student scores such as her son’s are so much lower in reading, math and science at McKinley compared with students in other inner-city California schools, McFarlane says intensive, early intervention classes in the core subject areas will start as soon as July. The children, having been left so far behind, should not have to wait for the normal school year in the fall of 2011, she says.

Clearly, USC's Hasan says, there's too much at stake for the Parent Trigger to be waved off as a political tool for creating charter schools. "It's a response to chronic educational deprivation," she says. "Parents are desperate to improve schools, and they want their kids to have a better life. It's really about survival for their children."

McFarlane, who immigrated from Panama when she was 20, says, "Most of these parents are immigrants, and they went through a lot to come here. So they think, 'Why should I let things fizzle?' Once you come here, you want to make the most of the opportunities this country has to offer."

Since this is the first Parent Trigger attempt, nobody knows how quickly the parents will be able to force the district to relinquish the school. Compton Unified School District Board vice president Micah Ali, four days before the Parent Trigger signature-gathering success was announced at the Dec. 7 press conference, hinted at a possible battle to come. He insists to the Weekly that he is a "determined advocate" for student and parental rights, knows of no particularly pressing academic issues at McKinley, and that he hasn't "heard any complaints" about the school.

Asked how Compton Unified will handle the Parent Trigger, Ali offers a somewhat sly response, pointing to section 53303 of the Parent Trigger law, which states that a school district "shall not be required to implement" the Parent Trigger if the request is "for reasons other than improving academic achievement or pupil safety." 

Says Ali: "Nothing is guaranteed."

As for the hard-hitting, July 2010 consultant report to outgoing state Superintendent O’Connell that detailed the troubles at the faltering school district, Ali says, "There's progress being made."

Austin responds that McKinley's parents, and his organization, are "prepared for whatever actions the district may take." He says, "The law is clearly on the side of the parents of McKinley, not the bureaucrats at Compton Unified."

If Compton Unified's lawyers fight back based on section 53303, "They’ll be laughed out of court," he says. "McKinley is one of the lowest-performing schools in all of California, and it's in one of the lowest-performing, most dysfunctional school districts in the country. If that's not enough for a Parent Trigger, I don’t know what is."

 

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.


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