Parents in Compton 1st to use new law to convert school to charter campus

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Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

Compton Unified parent Ismenia Guzman, on right, holds receipt given by school district for petitions to turn McKinley Elementary into a charter school under California's new parent trigger law. Celerity Educational Group would run the campus as a charter if the petitions are approved.

Parents in the Compton Unified School District became the first in the state to use a new California law. It allows parents to petition school districts to convert low-performing campuses into charter schools.

After lawmakers debated its principles in the marble halls of the state capitol, the law became real in Lorena Bautista’s modest back yard in Compton. An interpreter helped Bautista welcome about a hundred people. "Thank you for coming and being here in my house," said Bautista, through the interpreter.

Bautista’s one of a few dozen parents who detailed the instructional shortcomings of nearby McKinley Elementary School. Ismenia Guzman has a first grader at the school. "I just want a better education for my daughter and for all Compton school kids attending Compton Unified. I just don’t want our kids to be struggling due to poor education."

Test scores back up her concerns. While it has raised its Academic Performance Index by more than 30 points in the last year, McKinley Elementary still trails more than a hundred points below the state’s 800-point goal for all schools.

The Parent Trigger law allows parents at under-performing schools to request that the place start over as a charter – a publicly funded campus independent of school district control.

Ben Austin heads Parent Revolution, the organization that helped these parents pull the legal trigger. He joined the activist mothers and fathers in this little backyard in Compton. "For the first time in the history of America parents are going to lead a transformation of their failing neighborhood school."

Who’s leading what is up for debate. Austin’s group, a non-profit birthed by the Green Dot charter school company, was the catalyst for the law – and for this signature drive.

It provided staff to gather signatures, presented parents with a short list of charter school operators to choose from and facilitated tours of those charters. Parent Revolution also organized and paid for publicists, catering and transportation for the day’s event.

That’s not grassroots transformation, California Federation of Teachers president Marty Hittlelman told KPCC’s "AirTalk." He said he’s watched how the Parent Trigger law is working in Compton Unified. "We hear reports that parents are being harassed at their homes in order to sign petitions, that they’re going after specifically, they’re targeting non-English-speaking parents. They pulled away from the African-American community when people started asking questions."

McKinley Elementary parent Karla Garcia pulled up as buses readied to drive toward school district headquarters. She said she’d signed the petition, but she changed her mind and hoped to withdraw it, because the signature gatherer asked her if she wanted the school improved.

Garcia said that’s not the same as agreeing for it to become a charter. Besides, she added, the new principal is turning the school around. "The kids have more homework, my daughter is reading more. She is better in math. They have tutoring programs so I see a lot of better changes at McKinley."

A Parent Revolution organizer said the petitions clearly stated that the intention was to create a charter school.

After a four-mile school bus ride to Compton Unified headquarters, parents delivered their petitions. District Superintendent Karen Frison received the requests.

Ismenia Guzman held up a letter from Frison on white district stationery that acknowledged receipt of the petitions. "We’re going to push them. We’re going to give them time to check on the petitions, making sure that our kids are in there, parents have signed, signatures are all right. But after that it’s something that they’re going to take care of."

Behind her, State Senator Gloria Romero, the author of the Parent Trigger law, beamed. Education is the most urgent civil rights issue today, Romero said. She called Guzman and her fellow parents the new freedom riders, emboldened by the new law to hold administrators to a higher standard.

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