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Compton's Parent Trigger Feud

Compton's Parent Trigger Feud

PHOTO BY TED SOQUI

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.

In truth, state law requires any Parent Trigger charter school to accept all the kids in the school's admission area.

A printout provided by Parent Revolution was taken from a YouTube comment section written beneath a Parent Trigger documentary short. It shows Tellez spreading the falsehood that kids will be dumped: "Ms. Hernandez, you will regret having supported Celerity when your child is rejected by them."

Marlene Romero says she joined Parent Revolution after Tellez and McKinley failed to teach math to her son, Ivan, despite his need for long-overdue help.

Other parents said they had been threatened with deportation to Mexico by Compton officials if they tried to close McKinley Elementary. But at a subsequent school board meeting, the anti-Trigger/PTA parents turned tables, making the identical claim against Parent Trigger petitioners.

The accusation of potential wrongdoing on the part of Compton school officials — not Parent Revolution, as reported in the L.A. Times — prompted the California State Board of Education and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to ask Attorney General Jerry Brown to investigate. The Times fed an atmosphere of misinformation with a story titled "California Board of Education seeks probe of Compton charter campaign." It implied the probe was prompted by actions of the reformers, Parent Revolution.

State Board of Education president Ted Mitchell tells the Weekly, "The Times got it backwards."

Repeating that misinformation, the Associated Press reported nationwide that the state education board had sought "a state investigation into alleged Compton charter school petition drive misconduct."

One mother of a McKinley kindergartner, who wanted to remain anonymous because she's frightened by the attacks on Parent Trigger, spoke to L.A. Weekly about her decision to sign the petition, and to rescind it after the accusations by the PTA and others.

And then to rescind her rescission and put her signature back on the petition.

"I was a bit confused at first about the facts and what-not," she says. "I was still 50/50, but I was really interested in what the Celerity teachers have to offer technologywise, and the small student ratio."

But after a private "town meeting" between parents and McKinley administrators, this mother says the failure of school administrators to communicate any real reform plan to help her little girl made her go with Parent Revolution. The Compton school leaders "didn't have a [formal] agenda," she says. Some people she had never seen before arrived at the town meeting, claiming they were parents, and she says they "were yelling, 'Don't believe Parent Trigger' because of all these things that didn't make sense."

The mother believes some opponents are "afraid to experience a change" or have personal ties with employees of nepotism-riddled Compton Unified. "I know some people who maybe know someone — who maybe have relatives who work at the school who are afraid of losing their jobs," she says. "But the charter has a lot more to offer the students."

Outgoing state Sen. Romero calls the attacks on the Parent Trigger "the disinformation campaign." She adds, "I'm not going to cast doubt on some of the parents. I think there are some really good parents who are confused. But there's active interference by those who have an economic interest in the body count of kids."

The California Teachers Association and California State PTA have decried the "stealthy" way Parent Revolution gathered its signatures. They want organizers to notify the district before recruiting parents to sign a petition.

Sen. Romero compares that to a woman notifying her abusive boyfriend before filing a restraining order.

"You're telling the parents they have to go and stand before their batterers and tell them, 'I'm going to go file papers on you!' " she says.

Parent Revolution deputy director Gabe Rose says leaving McKinley in the hands of a district that let it remain at the academic bottom for years wouldn’t be a change at all. He says Celerity was the only charter school Parent Revolution felt could handle the challenge of children who have fallen as far behind as the students at McKinley.

PTA president Cynthia Martinez strenuously disagrees. She showed up with four parents at a Celerity-hosted forum on Dec. 17, where she argued loudly with Celerity representatives over their data, which compared McKinley’s dismal academic results to the strong results at Celerity campuses.

Celerity has three charter schools in Los Angeles. One rates a very high 9 out of 10 in the state’s “similar schools” ranking, with a 932 Academic Performance Index score — which includes the high scores of the school’s Latino and black students.

Another Celerity campus rates a 10 out of 10 among similar schools statewide. Its English-language learners alone scored 814 on the API. The third campus rates 9 out of 10, with a respectable API score of 776 for English-language learners.

McKinley Elementary, which is about 40 percent black and 60 percent Latino, rates 1 out of 10 among similar schools in California. Its Latino students earn only a 713 on the API, and its black students are struggling at 635. The school has gained 77 points overall on the API in the past two years — a statewide trend that doesn’t signify major changes at McKinley.

Romero explains that “The California Department of Education has put the district on notice” after  placing McKinley on an official list of chronically failing schools. “The district has kept this quiet for two years,” she says.

California Teachers Association spokesman Frank Wells says the CTA believes many parents were not informed of all their options before being pressured to sign the petition.

“The Parent Trigger law was meant to be a vehicle for a local grassroots movement, as opposed to a vehicle for outside charter groups to sell their organization,” he says.

Having laboriously recontacted all 261 parents who signed their petition, Parent Revolution tells the Weekly it has identified 12 parents who may have rescinded their signatures. But a supporter of McKinley claimed at the Dec. 17 Celerity informational forum that Pastor Finnie had identified parents in the “triple digits” who had taken back their signatures. Finnie won’t show that proof to anyone, but insists that “far more than 12” parents came to the PTA to rescind their signatures.

Micah Ali, a member of the Compton school board, refused to divulge how many signature rescissions the district has received.
“Some parents whose names are on the petition no longer support it,” Ali stated via e-mail to the Weekly. “District staff will be evaluating whether that information is accurate and how to proceed.”

The looming question now is how and when the Trigger will take effect.
State board president Mitchell says that special emergency regulations for the law — now in place until the final ones are approved in early 2011 — require that the district under fire “review and approve” the charter school before it can take over.