Take Two for January 18, 2013

Parents invoke trigger to shake up failing LA Unified school

LAUSD

Vanessa Romo/KPCC

Parents of children at 24th Street Elementary held up placards for passing motorists as they descended upon LAUSD headquarters Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013 to deliver a petition to take over the failing school.

Hundreds of parents from a West Adams elementary school on Thursday invoked the “Parent Trigger” law to take over the failing 24th Street Elementary school. It's the first attempt to use the controversial law in L.A. Unified since it was passed in 2010 -- and could mark a turning point for parent-reform advocates. 

Amabilia Villeda, the leader of the Padres de 24 Parent Union leading the effort, handed Superintendent John Deasy some of the signatures she’d been gathering over the last nine months in a door-to-door campaign.
 
“I hope now you’ll hear us,” she said.

The school in the Historic West Adams neighborhood has a slew of problems. It’s one of the worst performing in the state and in the bottom 2% of the district. Two in three students can’t read at grade level and it has the second highest suspension rate for elementary schools in all of LAUSD. Villeda said parents want a new principal and experienced teachers.

Smiling and shaking hands, Deasy accepted the more than 400 signatures, delivered in a little red wagon, and addressed the crowd of more than 100 mostly Latino parents -- in Spanglish.

“Bienvenidos los padres de Escuela 24," he said, with a thick accent. "You are welcome here and I look forward to working together with you.”

The Parent Trigger law allows parents to take over a failing school and force a complete overhaul, as long as half of parents sign off. In response to the petition, the district can take a number of steps including negotiating with the parents. Deasy said he’ll meet with them next week.
 
Deasy’s warm welcome of Villeda shows how much LAUSD's attitude toward outside reform efforts have changed in the past decade.

It's in sharp contrast to the hostile response at other school districts that have been targetted for parent triggers -- and fought back. 

Deasy said he wants to join with parents “to fundamentally and dramatically change 24th street," eliciting cheers and applause the packed auditorium at LAUSD's headquarters.  “We are proud of you being part of the revolution to take power and agency to change 24th Street.”

For years parents have been pushing the district intervene. The district itself recognized that the school is in trouble and put it in line for serious reforms. But nothing changed.

Parent Revolution, a well-funded education advocacy group, got involved and began organizing parents.

“This is a school that has been an abject failure for years, you know, parents can’t wait for pilot programs or half measures… their kids get older every year and these parents need a great school for their kids next year and they’re going to get it,” said Ben Austin, of Parent Revolution.

Since launching in 2009, the organization has been encouraging parents to take over struggling schools by replacing staff or facilitating charter school conversions.
 
On behalf of the parents at 24th Street, Parent Revolution acquired an office space, set up phone banks, and helped them canvass the neighborhood for signatures.
 
Austin said 24th Street Elementary is “a poster child for why parents need power.”

A win in LAUSD  - the second largest district in the country - would be huge victory for his group.  Its first attempt at pulling the parent trigger was in Compton Unified and despite an initial win, a court decision ultimately disqualified so many parent signatures that the petition was thrown out.

Just last week, the Adelanto school board approved a charter organization to take over Desert Trails Elementary in the Mojave Desert. It was the first school in the country to be converted by parent trigger and it was a long slog.

“I think that this is a new day in the LAUSD," Austin said. "Partly because there is real enlightened leadership within this district and within this city that believes in parent power.”

Deasy once worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has funded Parent Revolution.

Still it’s not exactly a walk in the park for the movement in L.A. The teachers union adamantly opposes a takeover by parents.
 
UTLA President Warren Fletcher interrupted the event and told the audience the process would make parents and teachers adversaries.  He called the parent trigger a blunt instrument.

“It is a tool like an axe," he said. "It can chop down a tree.”

Parents were irate.

"We’ve been asking our teachers at our school for help," said one mother. "It’s not fair for me or my child that’s in kindergarten to have numerous teachers in one year. This is his first year, it’s supposed to be exciting."


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