Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Compton parents pull parent trigger

Chula Vista has something in common with Compton--Richard Werlin, the administrator who made a mess out of Castle Park Elementary School.

Compton parents pull parent trigger
Parents demand to bring in charter operator
By John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

Today, parents at a Compton Unified elementary school will become the first in the state to use a new “parent trigger” law. They will demand that an outside charter school operator be brought in to take over their low-performing school. Organizers predict that parent groups in other districts, fed up with poor achievement and unsuccessful district reforms, will follow the lead of McKinley Elementary parents.

Confident that they have more than the majority of families’ signatures needed to exercise their right, the parents plan to drop off their petitions at the Compton Unified’s central office. The petition asks the board specifically to bring in Celerity Educational Group, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that runs four charter schools, starting next fall.

The Legislature passed the “parent trigger” law in January as part of legislation to strengthen the state’s unsuccessful Race to the Top application. The provision was pushed by Los Angeles Sen. Gloria Romero and opposed strongly by the California Teachers Assn. A half-dozen other states are considering adopting California’s law.

Under parent trigger, a majority of parents within a school can request one of four reform options similar to models that the Obama administration is requiring for failing schools: closing it down, transforming it through a longer day and other changes, restarting it with mostly new teachers and a new principal, and converting to a charter school. Most parents are expected to pursue the latter option, and the burden will be on district trustees to justify why they shouldn’t agree to that choice.

Schools that have failed to make targets under the federal No Child Left Behind law four consecutive years qualify for the parent trigger – about 1,300 of the state’s 10,000 schools. The law capped the number of parent trigger schools at 75. Getting enough signatures, amid expected opposition of teachers and districts, could prove daunting in many cases.

Last month, the Little Hoover Commission endorsed the parent trigger in a report on charter schools, saying: “This latest development expanding opportunities for parents to petition to convert existing schools into charter schools is another step in the right direction, … The Commission believes that parents should have the opportunity to petition to convert poor-performing schools into charter schools.”

Parents at the 500-student McKinley Elementary have been organizing since the summer, according to Ben Austin, a member of the State Board of Education and a leader of Parent Revolution, a non-profit organization that that lobbied for the law and has sought out parents to take advantage of it. Austin said he’s confident McKinley leaders have gathered signatures of 62 percent of parents. Under temporary regulations adopted by the State Board of Education, parents are entitled to one signature per student.

“It’s been an uphill fight,” Austin said. “The district holds all the cards. Only it knows the enrollment numbers and controls contact information for parents.” Organizers had to counter lies by opponents, Austin said, that a charter school would charge tuition and exclude special education students.

McKinley Elementary, with low-income minority children, scored in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide, with an API score of 684, an increase of 26 points from 2009. African-American children’s scores dropped seven points to 635.

The district itself has struggled for years. Only 47 percent of students graduate, and only 3 percent of seniors – one tenth of the statewide average – have passed enough courses with high enough grades to qualify for a four-year public university.

In a scathing evaluation of the district this fall, a state District Assistance and Intervention Team concluded, “We remain deeply concerned about the commitment to student achievement across the district, and have grave reservations at this time, about the capacity of the District to make significant gains for students.” The report cited a focus on “adult issues as a priority before student needs;” a lack of civility and respect for people in meetings and during school visits; and a failure to hold adults accountable for their work and for unethical behavior.

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