Parent trigger tries takeover at South Central school, again
Mike Szymanski | February 3, 2016
For the first time, a Parent Trigger has been threatened twice for the same school. The parents of the 20th Street Elementary School in South Central Los Angeles are fed up with the lack of response from LA Unified after their first attempt two years ago to take over the school and on Monday filed a new petition with the district.
It all started when Guadalupe Aragon saw the report card that rated her daughter’s elementary school and showed that only 43 percent of the students at the school were performing at grade level. She decided to do something about it.
Parents signed a petition to take over the school through the state’s Parent Empowerment Act, often called a “Parent Trigger,” which allows parent groups to push for sweeping changes and even create a charter school. The LA Unified district administrators changed principals at the school, held meetings, made assurances. But that was two years ago.
This week, the Parents Union gathered yet another petition of 58 percent of the parents in the school of 591 students and called for another Parent Trigger. This time they’re not waiting for promises to be fulfilled.
“We had so many meetings and they told us they were going to do things, but nothing ever happened, we won’t wait anymore,” said Aragon, who was one of two parents signing the Feb. 1 letter to Superintendent Michelle King stating their case for the Parent Trigger and presenting the petition. The petition states that the parents are demanding a “restart,” an option that would allow them to create or bring in a charter school to operate 20th Street.
“The parents shelved their petition the first time around and agreed to work with top district officials, but there was no change at the school, it’s as if the petition never happened,” said Gabe Rose, the chief strategy officer of Parent Revolution, a group that helped write the Parent Empowerment Act in 2011. “Now we’re forced to file again.”
The act allows communities to jumpstart changes at chronically low-performing schools. It requires a majority of the parents to sign a petition that could force a district to bring in new leadership and staff, or convert a school into a nonprofit independent charter.
At LAUSD, nine schools have been threatened with Parent Triggers, and the district made changes to six of them before petitions were filed, according to Rose. Three schools at LAUSD — Weigand Avenue Elementary in Watts, 24th Street Elementary in South Central and 20th Street — resulted in filing petitions with the district to date.
In the state, there were three other schools where Parent Triggers were filed, in Anaheim, Compton and Adelanto school districts. Although it started in California, similar Parent Trigger laws have since been passed in Connecticut, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Indiana and Ohio. They are being considered in other states.
“These parents have been patient, they have followed the law and expected strong leadership to help turn their school around, but it didn’t happen,” Rose said.
The parents say that the school’s Academic Performance Index score failed to meet the expected 800 in more than 15 years. Last year, 20th Street Elementary test scores had only 19 percent of the students at grade level in English, and only 20 percent were at grade level in math. The school was ranked among the bottom 20 percent of elementary schools in the state, and the bottom 30 percent for schools with similar demographics.
The school is 94 percent Latino, 4 percent African-American and has 92 percent low- income families. Nearly half, 49 percent, are English learners. Charter schools and pilot schools exist in the area, but parents say they want their children to go to the school closest to them.
“I want my daughter Amy to go to a school that is easier and more accessible to our home,” Aragon said. “She had a chance to go to a charter school, but I wanted her to go to the local school, maybe I made a mistake. We are a poor community, many immigrants, right near downtown LA, and many of us don’t have a choice.”
Aragon and the other parents were concerned that their children were getting assignments that were too simple. In fourth grade math, Amy was bringing home addition problems for homework, when the district standards call for multiplication and some geometry.
“I was surprised that they didn’t offer tutoring,” Aragon said. “Parents got so frustrated that they weren’t taken seriously so they stopped attending the meetings.”
The parents met with their board member, Mónica Garcia, and she tried to work things out, but the parents weren’t satisfied. Garcia’s office wasn’t available to comment on the Parent Trigger petition.
David Holmquist, LAUSD general counsel, stated that the district’s legal team is reviewing the documents and has “no further comment at this time.”
Among the promises that the parents say were broken:
- School leadership: Parents were promised that a strong and experienced school leader would take over the school. Instead, the district installed a first-year principal with no prior experience leading a school turnaround effort. Parents were never allowed to interview principal candidates or be part of the process.
- Professional development: Parents were promised that teachers would get professional development before the start of the 2015-2016 school year, which never happened. Parents were also promised ongoing professional development for teachers to help them improve.
- School climate: Parents were promised a new and renewed school climate. Many parents still report feeling disrespected and unwelcome at the school.
- Sense of urgency: Parents were promised that the district would implement its plan with a sense of urgency and with the full buy-in of school staff. Instead, the district refused to even acknowledge that the plan was finalized until three months into the school year.
By law, LAUSD has 40 days, until March 12, to say whether the petitions are valid and then lay out a plan to do what the parents requested, Rose said. If not, the parents are ready to go to court.
“It’s not the desired outcome to go to court, but there is a law firm willing to take the case pro bono,” Rose said. “However, LAUSD has been more cooperative than other districts that tried fighting the Parent Trigger and had to be sued. LAUSD has been good about trying to avoid the lawsuits, and we just want them to start helping the school.”