Pulling the Trigger on Failing Schools

Alma Alvarado and her daughter, Jessica Alvarez, at Lynwood's Washington Elementary

This time last year, a storm was brewing in northwest Compton.

More than 60 percent of parents from McKinley Elementary, guided by a then-unknown nonprofit called Parent Revolution, had prepared a petition for the Compton Unified School District. They hoped to make history by using a controversial, untested California law — nicknamed the "parent trigger" — to wrangle their children's failing school from the district's clutches.

L.A. Weekly reporter Patrick Range McDonald observed as more than a dozen parent recruits went door to door, convincing low-income McKinley families of the superior education that charter operator Celerity Educational Group could offer their kids. All they had to do was sign the petition and Celerity could take over.

But as soon as those signatures hit the superintendent's desk Dec. 7 — effectively "pulling the trigger" — sparks flew. McKinley administrators, teachers and members of the Parent-Teacher Association fought back with a vengeance, alleging that Parent Revolution was handmaiden to the charter-school industry and had won over impressionable parents with sugar-coated lies. Forced to fend off the district in court, Parent Revolution urged Gov. Jerry Brown's State Board of Education to codify regulations for parent triggers, which would be critical to any implementation of the law.

By the time those rules were finally set in stone, however, it was too late for McKinley. Without regulations to guide the petitioning process, all district officials had to do was identify a missing date box and the historic effort turned to ash.

One year later, with that colossal bust under their belts, Parent Revolution organizers are taking a more careful approach.

Instead of pushing disenfranchised parents into battle under a shiny Parent Revolution flag, the organization has been fostering "parent unions" at schools across California. Of the 10 current chapters, most aren't interested in pulling the trigger. At those schools, Revolution is merely helping give parents bargaining power against the other unions on the block: the all-powerful California Teachers Association and, locally, United Teachers Los Angeles.

One of the parent-union chapters, however, has been itching for months to launch a full-scale "restart" of its struggling SoCal elementary school — one of the trigger's four options. Organizers asked the Weekly not to name the campus in question, as doing so could create extra obstacles for the fledgling effort. Members planned to begin a signature drive this week.

The second trigger test run comes just as the law's regulations go into effect. "We actually had to say, 'Slow down,' " says Linda Serrato, deputy communications director for Parent Revolution.

If they wish to turn their school around by the start of the 2012-13 academic year, this small group of petitioners has until February to get signatures from hundreds more parents. From there, the district has 45 days to find something legally unsound with the petition — or concede to the trigger.

Christina Sanchez, a Parent Revolution staffer, says the organization will be taking a back seat this time around.

"Our role has been fine-tuning their specific demands for change," Sanchez says.

Parent Revolution's roots in the charter-school industry — and its wealthy donors, such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Walton family — have so far haunted every step of its education-reform crusade. Plus, by demanding teacher accountability, the organization has become a target of California teachers unions, which have been known to lobby and pay away any legislation that puts pressure on teachers.

The "charter school" bugaboo certainly played a role in Revolution's first failure. Fighting the trigger became a source of hometown pride. Overheard in the crowd at one particularly heated board meeting: "Charter schools are viruses!" "You will not replace us! You will not call us refugees!" "The 'Revolution' did not start in Compton, but it will stop in Compton!"

But the parents driving the new trigger have no intention of turning their kids' campus into a charter. Instead, once petitioners collect enough signatures, they're looking to form a non-charter education management organization, run by the district, to fit their children's needs.

These parents "don't have positive feelings about charter schools," Sanchez says. "They don't want people to label this an outside organization."

Since its failure in Compton, Parent Revolution has fought to win back public favor. Most recently, organizers took a bus full of journalists — including one from the Weekly and two from the Los Angeles Times, a big media adversary at the outset — on a tour to meet the new chapters. Backyard scenes of grassroots organizing were complete with laughing children, hand-drawn signs and chicken coops.

The most lively stop on the tour was majority-Latino Lynwood, which Revolution organizers introduced as "ground zero for parent empowerment throughout the entire state." Alma Alvarado, a parent at Washington Elementary, stepped bravely to the podium, announcing that her fourth-grader still couldn't read. In the crowd, another mom concurred by way of neon posterboard: "Mi hijo no sabe leer."

More than 100 passionate parents, who had been pressuring school officials long before the parent-union concept was born, now gladly aligned themselves with the brand. "Parent Revolution! Parent Revolution!" they chanted.

The nonprofit isn't always so warmly received. According to parent-union organizers at Muir High School in Pasadena, the PTA has resisted working with Parent Revolution associates. And one PTA mom who joined the parent union at Desert Trails Elementary in rural Adelanto was promptly asked to resign from the PTA, Sanchez says.

"There's definitely the idea that we might be up to something else," says Yuri Anaya, a Parent Revolution organizer of two chapters in Pasadena. She claims she's overheard fearful whispers that a trigger effort might be underfoot, even though Muir High and Jefferson Elementary aren't among the 1,300-plus California schools performing poorly enough to be eligible for trigger reform.

On the tour bus in September, Parent Revolution founders Ben Austin and Pat DeTemple brushed off the Weekly's attempts at a "charters versus unions" debate.

Both forces, if left unchecked, will grow too powerful, they explained. That's why a third pillar — formed by parents, who answer to nobody but their kids — is necessary to keep education reform on track.

The weight of Compton clearly has been lifted from their shoulders. Celerity, the charter school that had been ready to take over McKinley, ended up moving into an empty schoolhouse next door. One-third of McKinley students soon transferred over. And according to Jennifer Welsh, a documentary filmmaker who followed the first trigger attempt, Compton Unified officials have said in recent interviews that they learned a lot from the experience. Once the national spotlight flooded the district's dark conference room, elected officials realized their 50 percent graduation rate wouldn't cut it forever.

As for Parents Revolution, Austin says, "We've been kind of becoming a lot more wonky lately." This month, directors even filled a brand-new post: policy director.

Christina Vargas, the woman chosen for the job, says she's been poring through a "myriad of different sources" — think tank Mass Insight, for example, and Harvard research — and condensing them into digestible, three-hour info sessions.

"That's the part that's exciting," Vargas says. "How do we create an informed and empowered body of parents?"

By reviewing studies on what makes teachers and classrooms most effective, Vargas says, parents can use that information however they please: to lobby politicians in Sacramento, to barter with school officials or — when all else fails — to pull the trigger.

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