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The Parent Trigger Warriors of Watts: How a Special Forces Hero and a Group of Moms Took Back Weigand Elementary

The Parent Trigger Warriors of Watts: How a Special Forces Hero and a Group of Moms Took Back Weigand Elementary

ILLUSTRATION BY ELLEN WEINSTEIN

Alfonso Flores is small but fit, with thick, rounded shoulders and a certain way of holding himself that says he could control a lot of space around him — quickly, if need be. His soft voice and kindly brown eyes suggest something more complicated is going on inside.

In late fall 2012, Flores found himself standing on the curb near Jordan Downs Housing Projects in Watts, waiting for Pastor Maudine Clark, a tiny, gnome-like figure, to wave him over to an apartment where a local drug lord had agreed to meet with him.

Flores, 42, who was raised in Koreatown by a big, loving family of teachers, was curious rather than nervous. He served in U.S. Army Special Forces for six years, an "operator" who, among other things, trained guerrillas for U.S. allies. One of his key duties was to gain the trust of locals in hostile territory in order to achieve specific goals. The Green Beret warrior lost a kidney trying to save Rangers at the Black Hawk Down disaster in Somalia, fought in Colombia's coke wars and rescued Kuwaitis in the Middle East. He rose to leadership in Special Forces A Team, and got out alive in 1997 to marry the girl he'd loved since high school.

You could say this more or less prepared him to teach at crazy-making LAUSD, which he'd dreamed would be "fun" and "mellowing down." Instead, Flores encountered teams of teachers union lawyers protecting incompetent adults who had no business being around kids. He saw lazy teachers form alliances against weak principals to avoid teaching their reading, math and writing lessons. He saw gifted teachers close their doors to these betrayals and take their own students soaring.

LAUSD's entire, corroded system reminded him of something: "the Middle East."

In honor of his parents and grandmother, who instilled in him a powerful sense of social justice, Flores chose to teach at downtrodden Normandie Avenue Elementary School, whose student population is heavily black and Latino. He became a mentor teacher, running almost every special program, only to be wooed away, to Global Education Academy charter school near Figueroa and 41st streets.

"What I learned in LAUSD is that every stride you make gets canceled down the hall by a teacher like 'Mr. Q,' who had a little TV in a drawer and watched it all day — you can't get rid of the Mr. Q's," Flores says.

The charter school was highly rated, but for Flores, even it had too many pinheaded bureaucrats. He started following the news in 2011 about poor Compton parents fighting to take over disastrous McKinley Elementary School by using California's new Parent Trigger law. Under that law, if parents get signatures from half the parents at a school, they can force the district to fire the principal or teaching staff. Parents can even wrest the school away from the district and put out requests for competitive proposals from charter schools or other school operators, then hand the school over to whomever they believe has a great plan to turn it around.

"This group called Parent Revolution was helping Compton parents," Flores says, "and they had a job opening for community organizer. I applied, but I told them I didn't have any experience."

Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, was overwhelmed by Flores' résumé. "No experience as a community organizer?" Austin laughs out loud. "Oh, Alfonso! He persuaded Colombian villagers to get their kids out of the cocaine wars! He ran all kinds of crazy committees at his school and had people rowing in the same direction. No experience? Alfonso has this gut understanding of how to help communities fix things that've gone really, really bad!"

Which is why Flores was meeting the Crips gang lord, a guy he knew only as James. Flores and his Parent Revolution crew had rented a tiny house on 108th Street in Watts, not far from Weigand Elementary, after hearing from mothers that the school had suffered a major drop in achievement and test scores under new principal Irma Cobian. Under past principal Frances Pasilla, Weigand was on a three-year roll, its Academic Performance Index jumping 111 points. But by the end of Cobian's first year, the API dropped 31 points to 688, then flat-lined. Last week, Weigand's latest scores fell again, even as kids at other badly disrupted school sites — such as Miramonte Elementary — held steady.

To understand how far Weigand fell, on average 54 percent of the students across all grades were proficient or advanced in math under Pasilla; under Cobian, 33 percent are. Under Pasilla, Weigand was a 5 in the Similar Schools Rankings, in which 100 socioeconomically identical schools are compared on a 1 to 10 scale statewide.

But as impoverished schools continually improved statewide in recent years, Weigand fell back, plummeting to a 2 in the Similar Schools Ranking — which LAUSD Superintendent of Schools John Deasy calls "disastrous."

The mostly young and Latino mothers wanted to remove Cobian by gathering signatures under Parent Trigger. Parent Revolution collects petitions through door-to-door visits and house meetings, traipsing around communities with clipboards. But this was secrecy-laden Watts, where strangers might be DEA, immigration or turf competition. Pastor Clark had warned the newcomers: "The Crips might think you're doing things. You might end up in an alley." She agreed to set up a meeting.

So Flores entered the dim apartment at Jordan Downs, to a surreal scene: "There's literally guns on the counters, and they're smoking pot. And they're all wearing bandannas on their faces."

It brought back memories to Flores of another time and place: Medellín, Colombia.

The pastor spoke first. "And she basically tells these guys, 'You know, there's these people who are trying to improve Weigand — and they're with this organization called Parent Revolution.' "

Flores treated the masked men like visitors to any open house, explaining that fed-up parents and his team would be visible at stores, across the street from the school and at the post office, trying to figure out who has children at Weigand, asking for their support.

Suddenly, one man nodded in assent. James. Flores pegged him to be in his early 20s, meaning he probably went to Weigand in the 1990s and attended Markham Middle School, a violent dropout factory.

"James stood up and he reached out his hand," Flores recalls, "and the guy was huge. Just a huge, huge guy. And he pulls down his mask and he says to me, 'Just make sure you fix it.' " Flores chuckles. "It was like a threat. Then what he said was, 'I went to that fucking school, and I know a lot of kids in the project go that fucking school — and they're not learning anything.' Every other word was bad words."

In the months to follow, "There were times I saw James' people, and they were thumbs-up in greeting. But there were other times, we saw the purple color gathering. And then I told my people to get off the streets. And then maybe something would go down. A shooting."

In the end, though, it wasn't the Crips these activists had to worry about.

Instead, they faced a fiery foe in Weigand principal Cobian, who waged a cunning PR battle. She was backed quietly by a powerful LAUSD administrator and much more loudly by teachers union activists, a band of parents and teachers and a crew of anonymous dirty tricksters who spread rumors that Parent Revolution was going to turn parents' signatures over to immigration — or give Weigand to a for-profit charter school chain. Activist parents were even threatened with police.

Only Cobian was targeted by the reformers. But the stakes couldn't have been higher. If powerless Latino and black parents in Watts could change an ossified school in which many children were falling further behind each year they remained at their desks, the status quo was in serious danger.

The pressure was palpable on the moms — and a few fathers — to return to less confrontational activities such as school committees. But rather than back down, they committed to fight alongside Flores. Gloria Aroche, 24, a mother from El Salvador, who wears snap-button cowboy shirts and floor-length skirts with ruffles, shyly explains through a translator: "Once we parents got united, we lost our fear and felt the power. Felt it. Like a warm thing inside you."

In the end, these parents won. Just before school opened this week, Deasy praised the parents, saying, "Having met them, these mostly mothers, what struck me was the courage it takes to raise your voice and demand that things be better — rather than just kind of tolerating what was there."

One year ago, Maria Alvarado came poking around the "one-ways" — the narrow Watts streets where the City of Los Angeles maintains a brutal regime of precision car-ticketing on street-sweeper day. Her job for Parent Revolution is to randomly visit areas, asking locals if they have children in school — and if they like the school.

In 2012, Alvarado and Flores had battled the administration at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, the first in U.S. history to be taken over by parents using California's Parent Trigger law. While that complex battle was still being waged in the courts, she was on to her next assignment, scouting Watts.

Alvarado immediately encountered parents who said the principal had driven out more than a dozen teachers, played favorites with parents and children, and did not champion classroom skills. So Alvarado paid a surprise visit to the dowdy little school, where three forlorn shrubs in a square of dirt act as the entry garden.

Once inside the administrative office, Alvarado was stunned by the principal's reaction to her request to visit the school's Parent Center to explain the Parent Trigger law to a few parents, as she has done at other schools. "Cobian just went off — yelling at Maria, this very short, non-intimidating, sweet person," Flores says. "We were kind of used to it from Adelanto, but you don't expect it from the actual principal. It was weird, you know?"

Parent Revolution canvassed a broader area around Weigand; several families quickly agreed to provide their homes for meetings where neighbors could learn about the Parent Trigger law.

That's when they met Maudine Clark.

"We were holding a house meeting four houses down from what turned out to be Pastor Clark's house," Flores says. "The Latino parents we were explaining the law to said, 'You need Pastor Clark's help. She's been battling Weigand for years.' Maria and I went right over there with our fliers about Parent Trigger in our hands. Pastor Clark took one look at us and said, 'It's about time.' "

The black preacher at Morning Star Baptist Missionary Church believes LAUSD systematically dumbs down curriculum in Watts because it's easier on teachers than pushing age-appropriate lessons. The grade-schoolers are bright and speak English but, like many inner-city kids, they suffer from thin vocabularies compared with suburban kids. The unhappy result, she says, is that the advanced children languish and those who need extra help get left far behind.

Pastor Clark, like her weathered adobe house, is gnarled and bent and welcoming. Her half-cemented front yard in Watts is a gathering center, strewn with a sofa or two and a huge, Southern-style barbecue. Her eyes are young, glinting with interest.

A teacher's assistant at LAUSD for 26 years, she says, "I know how the school district works, and I don't mind telling them. I know what is. A lot of parents at Weigand and here in Watts probably don't understand — yet. But once you understand it, you know when something's moving — and when it's not."

Cobian's arrival set off a stream of teacher departures and increasingly ugly disputes. One was with Jessica Medina, a young mother with the name Adamaris tattooed in feminine script across her chest. Medina lives with two young nephews and two children of her own in a colorful, fern-planted, Watts bungalow that can't be more than 16 feet wide.

Medina's third-grade son can't speak very well, so she approached Cobian for help applying for special education. After frustrating talks with the reluctant Cobian, Medina turned to a social worker to act as go-between. Eventually, Medina says, "I found a program at Kaiser Permanente because LAUSD would not teach my son. The principal said he didn't need [special ed] and could learn on a computer! So now he goes to an off-school nonprofit that teaches him math. I'm grateful. But math from Kaiser Permanente!"

Several mothers who sought special ed help were similarly angry, even as other controversies were coming to a boil: Cobian was fighting with a preschool teacher over petty rules regarding Halloween and other celebrations. Preschool parents had planned to buy tiny "culmination" caps and gowns for a winter 2011 ceremony, and were furious when Cobian invoked an LAUSD rule that bars these outfits except in high school. That didn't go over big in Watts. Meanwhile, some well-liked teachers were beginning to bail out.

Pro- and anti-Cobian camps formed, and in June 2011, about 70 parents and teachers turned in a scraggly petition demanding that LAUSD remove her. District officials interceded, and an uneasy peace settled in. Several parents transferred their children away — and more teachers left.

At first, Llury Garcia didn't understand what the hubbub was all about. The pretty 30-year-old has her own problems: She suffers from lupus and congestive heart failure and has had two strokes. She's sharp and well-spoken, but her own schooling was a travelogue of LAUSD disasters: Miramonte, Ascot Avenue and Parmalee Avenue elementary schools; Thomas Edison Middle School; Fremont High School.

"I started going gang in school," Garcia says, "because I thought I'd get more support from my friends than from the grown-ups." Her eyes fill with tears, and she shakes them off. "I know what it's like when the teacher asks you to read something and you cannot do it. I went to the L.A. Job Corps Center and couldn't qualify for my GED. I couldn't learn. I just gave up."

But when Parent Revolution arrived in Watts in 2012, Flores saw in Garcia a good brain dying to learn, like a lot of kids he knew in LAUSD and in the Army. She was already on a Weigand committee, trying to help at the school. When Garcia volunteered to contact parents about Parent Trigger, Flores warned her, "'You need to understand, the other side will attack you personally.' " Still, Garcia told Flores and Alvarado: "I'd like to be the parent representative here."

"Before, I wouldn't step up as a mom," Garcia says. "I was so shy." She adds, "I have changed so much. Now I believe I can do anything. ... This is the best thing I have ever done in my life. Now I'm not quiet. Now I talk, talk, talk. "

The law requires that 50 percent of parents sign a petition in order to take action. The parents opted for the most modest reform. They could have chosen to fire everyone, as occurred at 24th Street Elementary School this year, or they could have awarded Weigand to a charter operator or other group with a good plan for turning Weigand around. Instead, they simply asked LAUSD to fire the principal.

On April 2, the parents turned in enough signatures to LAUSD to do just that.

Irma Cobian had been a successful lawyer but walked away more than 20 years ago to be an educator. She's plainspoken, with a wide, friendly face that's easy to like. Near the end of the school year, weeks after the Weigand parents turned in signatures to have her removed, she robustly strides around the campus in flip-flops and a dark blue polo shirt with "Weigand" embroidered across it, still talking about her ideas on how to improve education.

The school is buzzing with projects. In one room, she points to some girls working on paper crowns for teachers, and chuckles about who's going to clean up the mess.

There's a consensus, internally, within LAUSD, that Cobian was a "best-friend" principal who let her No. 1 responsibility to the children in Watts — instruction — founder for her first two years.

The school had potential: Deasy says he saw "some excellent teaching" during the chances he had to visit. And Cobian clearly supported the kids personally and from her heart. On this particular day on campus, a small boy named Damien scrambles past Cobian — who stops him to make him tie his shoe. Cobian tells him she knew he'd been teased over his first name.

"They say it's the devil," the boy explains, peering up at her questioningly.

"Now that's not true!" Cobian warmly exclaims. "They're talking about a stupid movie some guys made in Hollywood, and your name does not mean the devil! It's nowhere in the Bible! Did you know that Damien is the name of a beloved priest who helped sick people, Father Damien? So you can be proud of your name. OK?"

The boy nods happily and vanishes to the playground.

Small girls run up to Cobian as she takes final photos for a teacher-appreciation project, her camera around her neck. "Culmination was so fun!" cries one fifth grader.

"So fun!" cries her friend.

"No, no, it was not!" Cobian calls to them. "Remember, it was sad! You are sad because I have to go away! Remember! They are making me go away."

Both girls pull long faces. The entire campus has been trained to mourn her departure.

Cobian blames a number of factors for the plummeting test scores on her watch. She blames LAUSD for failing to provide her a "written plan," saying, "There was a math coach who targeted the students [having trouble] in 4th- and 5th-grade math, I believe. ... But it wasn't written down. So I didn't know how it was achieved. ... Then second grade fell in Language Arts, because we had one teacher out for 90 days. ... And they took funding away for special reading and reading coaches ... And I don't think my teachers understood the training they got for teaching the math books ..."

These were telling admissions. All schools were hit with the budget cuts, yet LAUSD enjoyed rising academic achievements anyway. Cobian failed to immediately determine what the last principal had done, letting two years slide by. She didn't learn which grade levels faced problems before, and had no grip on her teachers' grasp of the math textbook.

Last August, just as Parent Revolution arrived in Watts, LAUSD placed Weigand in the Public School Choice program, an experimental system in which teachers, administrators and parents attempt to collaborate on a plan that will drag a school out of its rut. Cobian wrote the plan, which by all accounts is well-reasoned.

It will never be known if Cobian had the chops to implement the Public School Choice plan she wrote. Katie McGrath, LAUSD's instructional director for the Watts area and Cobian's boss, tells L.A. Weekly, "It's really unfortunate that we are losing her before she had her chance."

But Cobian saw little urgency in turning Weigand around. She tells the Weekly that "all education research shows it takes five years" to boost student achievement, including "two to three years" just to "build a philosophy with your staff."

Inner-city children haven't got five years. By that time, they're at Markham Middle School, rated a 2 on the statewide Similar Schools Ranking. At Markham, learning is often a matter of luck.

Superintendent Deasy squirms when told of Cobian's claims that it takes five years to train teachers to do their jobs in the inner city. "Really!" he erupts. "The woman who turned around Huntington Park High School was at ground zero — and that school had the highest gains in the district!"

Another example: the three-year academic 180 at once-horrific Garfield High School, driven by principal Jose Huerta and his teachers.

But paranoia gripped Cobian and the teaching staff she brought in. After Parent Revolution arrived, Pastor Clark, who has long been active in civil rights and was chairwoman of the Watts Neighborhood Council, arranged a community meeting at her church to discuss improving Weigand, inviting every employee of the school. Not a single teacher showed up, she says.

Staying officially one step removed from the finger pointing, Cobian refused to comment on key mothers who led the Parent Trigger campaign. Instead, she advises the Weekly to speak to her part-time parent aide and volunteer, Laura Gonzalez, saying, "There is one person who cannot stand me, and Llury Garcia is the spokesperson for her, and this is the one who wanted me fired. Parent Revolution is fired by the same fire that drove that first petition. It'll allll come out."

As for Gonzalez, she scoffs at Llury Garcia's transformation to parent advocate, saying, "I can't understand what got into her. All of a sudden I see her out there banging on doors, like, like, like a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses!" She then blames much of the parent revolt on the former preschool teacher who was involved in the kerfuffle over caps and gowns for preschoolers.

Even Judy Perez, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, the principals union, repeats the fantastic story that a festival-loving preschool teacher, who left Weigand last fall, was the catalyst for major education reform in Watts. (Reached by the Weekly, the teacher, now in another city, begged not to be dragged back into the bizarre, old drama.)

Many parents are buying into it. Pro-Cobian parent Iris Magallanes got special permission from Cobian to enroll her high-achiever daughter at Weigand instead of Grape Street Elementary. But she's now moving her child to Grape Street, explaining that the girl was taunted by the children of activist parents. Magallanes insists that Cobian and her teachers had no role in the school's academic collapse — it was the fault of activist parents who stopped helping with homework, and, yes, the preschool teacher, who resisted Cobian's 2011 crackdown on festivities, "which really emboldened the parents here."

Parent Revolution founder Ben Austin says, "Ah, that is fascinating. You have a school incapable of teaching small children, and they point in every direction but, 'Oops, we blew it on the math, the reading, the history, the grammar, the vocabulary.' "

Flores, sitting at his parents' spotless home in Koreatown, can barely contain his disgust. "They are very caught up with this story about this poor preschool teacher. You can see how this myth gives school officials a way to marginalize what has happened in Watts, the reform of a bad school by serious parents. We have unfortunately heard this very same tale even from the instructional superintendent for LAUSD, Katie McGrath, saying, 'This is a conspiracy.'

"My reaction: It is really sad."

There are two bitterly divided schools of thought among the mostly liberals, and mostly Democrats, who dominate the ranks of teachers, principals and school reformers in America. They are at war over how to fix the schools, and Parent Trigger has uncomfortably illuminated their growing divide.

On one side are intelligent, dedicated educators like McGrath, whose politics are far left of the average, liberal L.A. resident — but not unusual in education.

On the other side are progressives like Derrick Everett, a young black attorney and USC Ph.D. who worked for a Washington nonprofit before Parent Revolution, and Jesus Sanchez, born in East L.A., who worked at nonprofits helping the underserved gain access to college before he joined Parent Revolution. They believe children have a fundamental civil right to an education that trumps the adults, their bureaucratic ways and their unions.

McGrath refuses to discuss her views on the record, saying, "I can't comment due to my position in LAUSD."

But she has told multiple people who spoke with the Weekly that charter schools and nonprofits such as Parent Revolution, and anyone else who accepts funding from education-reform philanthropists such as Bill Gates, are capitalist entities trying to shift public resources from the schools into private hands. She believes their motivation is not primarily student achievement.

Cobian, too, views Parent Revolution's victory in Adelanto as a dark moment, saying, "Parent Revolution left a trail of community destruction in Adelanto, to borrow a line from The Avengers, yet they fear these parents being educated about what this movement is really all about. It's about schools being taken away from the public and handed over to private groups — just because you make some parents mad."

McGrath, strolling through Weigand last June, tells the Weekly, "We had meetings to discuss with teachers what should go into the Public School Choice plan [written by Cobian]. We invited the parents; we had a panel that ruled it. We had order. It's about being intelligent, careful and mindful. Parent Revolution is callous with its power. It's a sloppy process."

For 30 years or so, education higher-ups have stressed orderliness in education reform. But the groups now driving reform are increasingly comfortable with disorder. The Parent Trigger law can be messy, but it's also pure parent power that uses true community organizing, as parents challenge a seemingly indestructible power structure — that of public school districts. Naturally, it scares the hell out of teachers unions, who've used their clout to protect veteran teachers and fight against evaluations. (Warren Fletcher, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, declined comment.)

"What we are seeing now is that parents are driving the whole process, collaboratively, with a great grasp of power," says Ben Austin, who became executive director of Parent Revolution when it was founded in 2009 and has since become a leader in the reform movement.

Teachers at Haddon Avenue Elementary School in Pacoima voluntarily reopened their union contract recently, and while UTLA doesn't like to admit it, the impetus for that unusual move was the fact that, with Parent Revolution's help, Pacoima's economically disadvantaged parents had gathered 30 or 40 percent of the signatures they needed to enact Parent Trigger.

"Then the parents stopped — to see if the teachers would react," Austin says. "And the teachers did react, the right way. This was an incredibly sophisticated decision by these parents, to pause like that. In each community, the parents are deciding how to use their power. In Watts, the people in power are fundamentally offended that poor parents now have as much power as the quote-unquote professionals."

The war in Watts came to a head April 4 in Weigand's auditorium. Under the Parent Trigger law, school districts are barred from using resources such as buildings, email lists, equipment and staff to fight the volunteer parents gathering petitions. But LAUSD and UTLA officials had assured Austin they planned to use school property to hold a thoughtful presentation on their ideas for fixing Weigand in the face of the Parent Trigger plan, and Austin agreed to allow the presentation.

It turned out to have been a setup. At the entrance, UTLA activist Ingrid Villeda spoke angrily, claiming the Parent Trigger moms were gathering signatures under false pretenses, calling it an attack on Latinos. Inside, instead of a serious presentation, a school coordinator spoke from notes scrawled on napkins, then declared, "if [Parent Revolution] knocks on your door, call the police!"

The timing was crucial. LAUSD lawyers were counting turned-in signatures, and parents were still circulating petitions to ensure they had enough for the trigger. The day after the "presentation" at the auditorium, signature gathering sank. Ultimately, the reformers eked out a victory with just 52 percent of parents signing.

Parent Revolution, using the California Public Record Act, later learned that Katie McGrath had been involved. By law, district administrators must remain neutral in Parent Trigger campaigns. Yet the activists obtained emails showing that Alvaro Alvarenga, an administrator in LAUSD's Parent and Community Engagement Unit, sent McGrath and Cobian a flier as a "sample communication about Parent Revolution" and suggested, "Maybe we can use something similar."

The flier reads, "Please be wary about giving your information to an outside organization." (In fact, under the Parent Trigger law, signers must provide their information — to prove they really are parents at the school.) In an email to Cobian about the flier, McGrath doesn't discourage use of that language but calls the coming April 4 event a UTLA-hosted "community response."

McGrath says, "I never used my position or district resources to block the parents, and in fact I caught flak for not being more vocal, from those wanting to stop them. We followed the law at all times."

Deasy refuses to comment on "current LAUSD employees," including McGrath. But he says of the mothers of Watts: "These are pretty courageous acts in communities where there is tremendous impact, and in many cases families are just trying to keep it together, and trying to keep a roof over their head and trying to keep their kids healthy. And the district's goal is to work with them."

Austin believes the gauze has lifted from the eyes of too many mothers to stop the movement now. "They understand too much. They don't just believe what they're told anymore," he says.

He sees natural leaders like Llury Garcia one day running for Watts Neighborhood Council, even the school board.

Alicia Cardiel, a 30-year-old, single mother at Jordan Downs, who Cobian's aides singled out as being the "instigator" of Parent Revolution's arrival in Watts, has leadership potential. When a whisper campaign suggested the moms were trying to turn Weigand into a charter school, Cardiel confronted school officials. "The principal told me one day that her family member was a policeman — that's a threat in Watts," Cardiel recalls. "And I said, 'Well, I'm not afraid.' My mom sells clothes on the sidewalk next to the school, and I'd often be with my mom, holding the petition. But one day, the police came and said my mom couldn't sell clothes and I asked the officer, 'Why?' My mom can make up to $20 a day. It's the way it is — we don't have much. This was done to hurt my family.

"Maybe when we have a new principal, the 'in' parents and 'out' parents — I can't think of the English word for this — but maybe it will end."

In May, after the LAUSD Board of Education formally voted to remove Cobian, rumors abounded that 19 or more teachers would transfer out, in solidarity. But the teachers waited, and waited, finally blindsiding Deasy just before a legal deadline for fall hiring. Of the 22 teachers, 21 transferred.

That forced the superintendent into an unprecedented rush to find 21 good replacement teachers for kindergarten through fifth grades.

"How ironic that UTLA fights so hard against a movement to remove one principal — a movement that did not seek to remove one teacher," Deasy says.

He turned that slap against the Watts moms into opportunity: "You'd be surprised how many young teachers from schools like UCLA want to teach at a school that's impacted, like Weigand, with the idea of making a difference," Deasy says. "We're very pleased."

Pastor Clark isn't so forgiving. "I don't send a child to school to love a principal — they are there to teach my child!" she thunders as if delivering her Sunday sermon. "They have it backwards at Weigand! This ain't about loving no adult! It's about teaching the kids. Reading. Writing. Mathematics!"

On Aug. 13, 400 laughing, shouting students skipped, ran — and in some cases were towed by moms — onto campus for the first day of school, greeting the new principal, Joseph Prendez, and 21 new teachers, plus the one veteran.

It is Weigand's first chance, ever, to start over. The new principal has met the activist parents and loyalist parents and has a 90-day plan for stitching relations together as best he can. Active parent organizations are expected to weigh in, but he's in charge.

As for Alfonso Flores, he's moving on to his next project. He's just been promoted by Austin to boss around other community organizers. Moms are calling Parent Revolution, every week now, asking how to do what was done in Adelanto, Watts, Pacoima and at 24th Street School, where the struggling principal and teachers simply agreed things were a mess and walked away without a fight.

"Every day, this is a gift to me," Flores says, "because I should not have survived Somalia. We are fighting for parents who have never been fought for before, who live with gangs and filthy alleys and abandoned communities. So this is a victory for them. And they own it."

ILLUSTRATION BY ELLEN WEINSTEIN • PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANNE FISHBEIN

Alfonso Flores chose Normandie Avenue school for his first teaching job because it was 50-50 Latino and black:

PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEINAlfonso Flores chose Normandie Avenue school for his first teaching job because it was 50-50 Latino and black: "It was an honor to be in front of the children."