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California

Ben Boychuk
The “Trigger” that Wasn’t Pulled
South Los Angeles parents leverage California’s empowerment law for reforms.
13 June 2014

Parents and school administrators assembled late last month in the auditorium of West Athens Elementary School in South Los Angeles to sign an unusual agreement. After months of discussions with a group calling itself “Aguilas de West Athens” (Eagles of West Athens), the Los Angeles Unified School District agreed on May 23 to spend $300,000 on a full-time psychologist, a new attendance officer, a part-time social worker, an additional teacher’s assistant, and a few part-time aides for the school. The agreement also commits West Athens to improving student discipline; directing more staff resources to Common Core implementation; and, more broadly, strengthening parent participation on campus in the coming year.

The announcement was significant enough to merit an appearance by LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, who added his signature to a pair of oversized, ceremonial copies of the agreement. “I actually think this is a remarkable model,” he said. “I’m proud to sign this pledge and this promise to work for youth.” Yet in order to achieve this “remarkable” outcome, parents didn’t need to file any lawsuits, form any picket lines, or hold any rallies or sit-ins. They simply said they were considering a petition campaign under California’s landmark Parent Empowerment Act, also known as the “parent trigger.” Almost immediately, West Athens principal Ruth Castillo and local administrators stopped paying lip service and started listening to what the group of mostly black and Latino parents had to say. West Athens marks the first time parents have effectively used the 2010 parent trigger law without, in fact, using the law.

Passed in 2010, mired in controversy, and loathed by teachers’ unions, the parent trigger provides that if at least half of eligible parents at a low-performing public school sign a petition, local school officials must adopt one of several specified reform models. These include replacing the principal and staff or converting the school to an independently operated charter. After a couple of false starts, Golden State parents have availed themselves of the parent trigger on a handful of occasions over the past two years. The first successful effort attracted national attention in 2012. Parents at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto faced heavy resistance from school administrators, local school board members, and other parents before a San Bernardino County Superior Court judge ordered the district to accept their petition and hand the failing school over to a charter operator. The newly rechristened Desert Trails Preparatory Academy opened last July and completed its first year on May 30.

Other parent groups have stopped short of pulling the trigger, too, but not before beginning serious petition drives. Parents at Lennox Middle School and Haddon Avenue Elementary in L.A. used signed petitions as leverage to persuade administrators to adopt curricular changes and improve school security. Last year, parents at Weigand Elementary School in Watts used the law to force out a recalcitrant and unpopular principal. But West Athens parents told me they were happy to work with Principal Castillo, despite her initial resistance. And all of the parents I spoke with said that they never contemplated following the Adelanto model and converting West Athens to a charter school. They understood that opponents of the parent trigger have portrayed the law as a blunt instrument, less about empowering parents than empowering “private” charter operators. (Charter schools are public schools and the vast majority of charter operators in California are nonprofit organizations.) For the Aguilas de West Athens, their primary concern was ensuring their children have better opportunities than they’ve had. Their refrain: “We just want our kids to go to college.”

“Despite some differences of opinion,” said Winter Hall, one of AWA’s leaders, “whether it be with the school, district, parents, teachers . . . this proves that we are able to sit down, despite all of that, and have a dialogue.” Added Principal Castillo: “It’s been a bumpy road, but it’s about students.” Not all West Athens parents welcomed the May 23 announcement. The morning of the assembly, a group of volunteers allied with United Teachers of Los Angeles handed out flyers emblazoned with “No AWA” to parents and other passersby, inviting them to “come and join us to demand the truth!” Working from a clichéd playbook, the leaflets denounced an agreement that existed only in the imaginations of its opponents. “We do not want to privatize our education!” “These people DO NOT REPRESENT our interests!” “We are fine here!”

West Athens is anything but “fine.” Serving 800 predominantly Latino and black students in the first through fifth grades, the school is one of the worst performers in the district and the state. West Athens scored 721 on the state’s Academic Performance Index last year—30 points below the district average and in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide. (The statewide API target is 800, on a scale of 400 to 1,000.) The school has been classified as “program improvement” since 2006, which means it has consistently missed state-mandated academic performance goals in reading, math, and science.

Apart from the lagging academic indicators, West Athens also has a serious discipline problem. Hall helped organize Aguilas de West Athens in part because another student had stabbed her daughter, a first grader, in the face with a pencil. And the place looks like one would expect a 40-year-old urban school to look. Shavonn Jones was more blunt. “Walk around the school,” she told me. “It looks like a jail. It’s so bland. There’s no enthusiasm.” Jones, who is also Hall’s sister-in-law, said she attended West Athens and has sent her five children to the school. She described how campus bathrooms were in severe disrepair at the start of the school year. Under a 2004 class action lawsuit settlement, the LAUSD must ensure that every school has clean, functioning bathrooms. (Yes, it took a lawsuit to compel the second largest school district in America to keep its toilets working.) Jones joined the group, she explained, because she hoped to help restore some of the school’s lost luster. “Just because the neighborhood is poor,” she said, “why should the people be treated that way?”

Aguilas de West Athens exists in part because parents became fed up with bureaucratic intransigence, and in part because the Los Angeles-based Parent Revolution gave parents the organizational training and logistical support they needed to succeed. In fact, the proliferation of these “parent unions” at schools across Southern California is the direct result of Parent Revolution’s efforts. Ben Austin, the organization’s executive director, is unapologetic about emulating the tactics of public-employee unions. Over the years, he’s explained how the parent-trigger law gives parents “a seat at the table” in much the same way that the state’s byzantine education code has strengthened and protected teachers. Lately, Austin has come to think of the parent trigger as akin to a strike. Of the West Athens agreement, Austin said, parents could negotiate a satisfactory outcome without using the full force of the law. “The unions don’t go on strike every time,” he said. “They sit down and negotiate. Why shouldn’t parents do the same?” The parent-trigger movement, Austin wrote recently, “isn’t about any particular policy endgame. . . . Different parent unions at different schools in different communities will have different needs. That’s the point.”

After six states quickly adopted laws modeled after California’s, efforts to pass parent-trigger legislation have foundered this year as teachers unions and their allies have tried to make “charter school” into a pejorative. But California’s experience suggests far more innovative possibilities for local reform through parent empowerment. “The real power of the law,” Austin told me, “is just knowing that it’s there.”

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