By Steve Gunn
LOS ANGELES – The third chapter of California’s Parent Trigger saga is about to unfold, and officials are expecting the process to be much easier this time around.
This morning a group of parents whose children attend 24th Street Elementary will present the Los Angeles Unified School District board with a petition to allow them to take control of the failing school and secure wholesale changes.
This comes about a week after the school board in Adelanto, California ended a long fight by voting to allow the parents of students at Desert Trails Elementary to convert the school into an independent charter school.
That was the first successful Parent Trigger effort in the nation.
It also follows a failed effort in the Compton district, where parents of students at McKinley Elementary failed in their attempt to take over the school.
Both the Adelanto and Compton efforts were marred by harsh resistance from local school boards and teachers unions that didn’t want to cede control of the schools, despite their inability to operate them in a productive manner.
A spokesman for Parent Revolution, an organization that helps promote Parent Trigger efforts, said the 24th Street Elementary conversion should be much smoother. Significant support already exists among Los Angeles administrators and school board members to allow the parents to make the changes they deem necessary, he said.
“I think there is recognition among administrators and board members at LAUSD that this is a school in desperate need of help and change,” said David Phelps, communications director for the L.A.-based Parent Revolution. “We feel quite confident that the petition will be accepted.”
Failure in Compton
The state of California passed the nation’s first Parent Trigger law in 2010. It allows the parents of a majority of students in schools that have been failing for three straight years to petition the local school board to take over the building and implement changes, including possible conversion to a charter school, replacement of staff or closure of the school.
It’s no surprise that the law is not popular with teachers unions or others in the public school establishment, who fear loss of control and employment.
The first effort to use the law surfaced in Compton in 2010, where paid staffers from Parent Revolution joined 15 volunteers in collecting signatures from parents of students at McKinley Elementary. In the end they presented the Compton Unified School District board with a petition containing the signatures of 61 percent of parents.
But the school board was having none of it. Board members angered many by suggesting some of the signatures were phony. They asked parents who signed the petition to report to the school and show identification so their signatures could be authenticated. That resulted in a lawsuit filed on behalf of the parents against the school board.
The lawsuit was eventually dismissed due to the accidental omission of a date box on the parent petitions, according to media sources.
Other complications arose when numerous parents requested that their signatures be removed, claiming they did not fully understand what they were signing when presented with the petitions.
In the end the effort “kind of faded away,” according to Phelps, but there was a silver lining.
A church near McKinley Elementary opened a charter school a few blocks away, using the same charter management company that had been chosen by parents to manage McKinley. The new school gave parents in the area another option for their children.
“It was the first time this had been done,” Phelps said. “It was a new experience for everyone involved.
“The school board just sort of ground it to death. There’s no doubt that (the Parent Trigger effort would have succeeded) if that had not been the case.”
More trouble, then success in Adelanto
The second effort was launched in 2011 in the Adelanto district, where parents started a determined effort to take over Desert Trails Elementary.
The fight was long and hard. Twice the school board rejected what appeared to be properly completed petitions. Some local teachers and other opponents went door-to-door trying to talk parents into removing their signatures, and some agreed to do so, temporarily dropping the number of signatures below the required 50 percent mark.
There were reports that Parent Trigger opponents threatened some Latino parents with deportation if they continued to support the takeover effort.
The parents filed a lawsuit, and in July 2012 a California Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the petition, stating that the law did not allow parents to remove their signatures from the petition.
The school board still dragged its feet, claiming there was not enough time to form a charter school by the fall of 2012. The board formed an “alternative governance board” for the school, comprised of parents, teachers, school administrators and a community member.
But Parent Trigger supporters considered the committee to be a breach of the law. They again filed suit, seeking to determine whether they or the school board had the final authority to implement reforms under the Parent Trigger law.
A judge ruled in the parents’ favor, and last week the Adelanto school board, with several new members who support the parents, gave Desert Trails Elementary the green light to leave the district and become an independent charter school.
Why was there so much ugly resistance to change in Adelanto?
“There was antipathy on the part of the unions, school administrators and others that the end result may be a non-profit charter school that would pose a threat to existing jobs and positions and tenure,” Phelps said.
“It was also natural that some people didn’t want to acknowledge that it was a bad system that needed change. It was tough for them to acknowledge that they just didn’t get the job done, and they took a very defensive position.
“I also think there was a feeling on the school board, where they wondered who these people were from the outside (Parent Revolution staffers) coming in and trying to change our community.”
High hopes for 24th Street Elementary
There’s little doubt that things need to change at 24th Street Elementary in Los Angeles, according to Phelps.
Academically the school has ranked in the bottom two percent of the 563 elementary schools in the Los Angeles district for at least six years. It has consistently ranked among the bottom 10 percent of schools in the state, and 70 percent of the students can’t read at grade level when they complete their final year.
The school also has a “broken culture,” with the second highest student suspension rate of any elementary in the Los Angeles district, according to Phelps.
The school’s parents have been trying to work with the district for several years to bring about major changes, with little success, according to Phelps. They finally approached Parent Revolution for help in the spring of 2012, he said.
The anticipated support of the L.A. school board is not surprising. In 2009, a year before the state law passed, the school board created its own policy allowing parents to force major changes at low-performing schools.
Union officials opposed the policy at the time, calling it an attempt to destroy the union.
They haven’t changed their position. They are already opposing the 24th Street Elementary conversion plan.
“At a time when parents and teachers and administrators need to be working together to actually solve these problems, this moves in the absolute opposite direction,” Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, was quoted as saying.
While cooperation is expected from the school board, parents have not determined a specific course of action to pursue, Phelps said. Their only goal at the moment is to have a much better school by this fall, he said.
“It may not be a charter school,” Phelps said. “Because we are hoping it will be a collaborative effort with the district, we may end up seeing other types of transformation that take place after negotiations.
“One thing is for sure. The 24th Street Elementary is going to look and function completely different.”