Schools sued for not being ‘trauma sensitive’

Beaten and sexually abused by his addict mother’s boyfriends, Peter P. did poorly in school. When he was kicked out of a foster home, the 11th grader slept on the roof of his high school till he was discovered — and suspended.

Kimberly Cervantes, 18, is suing Compton Unified for failing to provide "trauma-sensitive services."

Kimberly Cervantes, 18, is suing Compton Unified for failing to provide “trauma-sensitive services.”

Peter P., four other students and three teachers have filed a lawsuit against Compton Unified, which serves a low-income, high-crime city near Los Angeles. Students who’ve experienced violence, abuse, homelessness, foster care and other “adverse childhood experiences” need “trauma-sensitive services” in school, the suit argues. It calls for “complex trauma” to be considered a learning disability.

“The lawsuit is seeking training for staff to recognize trauma, mental health support for students to cope with their condition and a shift from punitive disciplinary practices to those based on reconciliation and healing,” reports the Los Angeles Times.

Traumatized students are kicked out of school rather than helped, according to the suit.

Another student at age 8 first witnessed someone being shot and killed and has seen more than 20 other shootings since then — one of them resulting in the death of a close friend, according to the lawsuit.

Another student, Kimberly Cervantes, 18, a senior at Cesar Chavez Continuation School, said she stopped attending school for weeks at a time after multiple traumas, including being told by teachers at a different school that her bisexuality was “wrong.”

Los Angeles Unified provides counseling for traumatized students. One Guatemalan boy had witnessed rebel soldiers killing villagers, then saw gang violence in Los Angeles, said Marleen Wong, a USC social work professor who designed the program.

. . . Martin learned about trauma, how to calm himself and how to apply the relaxation techniques in his daily life, she said. Techniques included walking to school with others so as not to be alone and seeking teachers to support him.

. . . “He was able to go back to school, calmed down, had fewer fights and better attendance.”

There’s no question that some students have been through hell — and that it may affect their ability to behave and learn. But do we want to consider them disabled?

Family stress is their students’ greatest barrier to school success, say state Teachers of the Year in a new survey. Next came poverty, and learning and psychological problems.

‘Parent trigger’ schools open

The first “parent trigger” schools have opened in California. Desert Trails, a low-performing elementary school in Adelanto, is now a charter “preparatory academy.” The school year started in early August.

In Los Angeles, 24th Street Elementary opened last week:  The district will run the K-4 grades while a charter operator will run grades 5 to 8; a preschool provider will offer early childhood education.

Parent Revolution, which is backing trigger campaigns, claims two other victories: Parents got what they wanted without taking over the school

At Haddon Avenue Elementary in Pacoima, the parent union paused — and then stopped — their Parent Trigger campaign.  This was because their pressure caused the district, teachers and administrators to put together a thoughtful plan to transform the school.  And in the Watts neighborhood of LA, the parents decided on replacing the principal and making in-district changes to turn-around the chronically failing Weigand Avenue Elementary.

We The Parents, a documentary about Compton parents’  “trigger” campaign to seize their children’s chronically low-performing school, has opened in Los Angeles. The LA Times calls it “inspirational but not too informative.” The Compton parents failed on a technicality, but drew a charter school to a nearby church to provide an alternative.

‘Won’t Back Down’ isn’t true — yet

Hollywood’s Won’t Back Down has “accomplished the impossible,” writes Glenn Garvin in the Miami Herald. It’s made “teachers’ unions demand strict accuracy” in a movie about schools.

For decades, Hollywood has been making movies that show teachers as superhuman caring machines without a peep from the unions. That math teacher played by Edward James Olmos in Stand And Deliver, the one who took over a classroom of kids who couldn’t do simple arithmetic and in nine months had them aceing calculus exams? History does not record a single union official complaining that, in real life, that process took several years.

Won’t Back Down stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a single working-class mom with a dyslexic daughter and Viola Davis as a sympathetic teacher and parent. They join forces to take over a failing elementary school.

It’s “based on true stories,” the movie claims.

“That conveys the message that parents and teachers took over and ran a school somewhere,” wrote Rita Solnet, a founding member of the teacher-union front group Parents Across America, in a widely reprinted blog item. “That never happened.”

Not yet. But soon.

In southern California, Compton parents lost their parent trigger bid on a technicality. Some moved their kids from McKinley Elementary to Celerity Sirius, a new charter school in a nearby church. The new charter’s Academic Performance Index scores were significantly higher than McKinley’s scores after one year.

Mojave Desert parents are on track to take over Desert Trails Elementary in the fall. Friday, a Superior Court judge ordered the school board to comply with the court order authorizing the conversion. The parents union plans to choose a charter operator on Thursday. Two non-profits that run nearby charter schools are in the running, reports Ed Week.

“We wanted to keep it within the community, to keep it local,” said Doreen Diaz, who is helping lead parents seeking to convert the school to a charter. “They’re very different applicants and they speak to our community.”

At the same time, neither of the two finalists, LaVerne Elementary Preparatory Academy, in the nearby city of Hesperia, and the Lewis Center for Educational Research, a nonprofit group in neighboring Apple Valley, which oversees two charters, has experience turning around an academically low-performing school.

“Anybody who’s looked at this situation has said it will be very rough,” said Rick Piercy, the president of the Lewis Center.

Can the school be improved under new management? This time, we’ll see.

‘Trigger’ parents enroll in charter

McKinley Elementary, a low-scoring school near Los Angeles, won its fight to block a “parent trigger” takeover. However, the brand-new Celerity Sirius Charter School opened this week with 500 students split between a nearby church and a second site added to meet the demand.

McKinley’s enrollment was in the 400s last year and not all students have left, so the new charter must be drawing from other schools in the low-performing district.

Pulling the trigger talks to Compton parents who pulled the “parent trigger” to take control of their children’s failing school with help from Parent Revolution. The school board rejected the petition as “insufficient.” The issue will be decided in court.

Board rejects ‘parent trigger’

Under California’ s “parent trigger” law, a majority of parents can petition for a low-performing school’s change of management — including handing control to a charter school. But Compton Unified School Board voted 7-0 to reject the state’s first parent trigger petition. The board said the petition failed to include information required by state regulations,  cited the wrong education code and failed to provide evidence parents had selected their desired charter operator, Celerity Educational Group, after a “rigorous review process.”

Parent Revolution, which organized the drive at McKinley Elementary, will take the board to court.

State board may weaken ‘parent trigger’

California’s parent trigger law, which lets parents petition for changes at their children’s low-performing school, may be weakened, reports the LA Times. The 2009 Parent Empowerment law left the details of implementation to the state board of education, which held a meeting this week to discuss regulations on issues such as who counts as a parent and whether petition drives must be publicized. Instead of adopting the proposals drafted last year, the new board will “start from scratch with more input from interest groups,” reports the Sacramento Bee. The board set up a working group of “stakeholders” that includes opponents of the parent trigger to make recommendations in March.

In the first use of the parent trigger, Compton parents have petitioned to turn a chronically low-performing elementary school into a charter run by a local network with a record of success. More than 60 Compton parents drove to Sacramento to testify at the board hearing.

State education officials announced they are working on “cleanup” legislation with Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica), who last year voted against the bill including the parent trigger.

“This is clearly nothing more than an attempt to repeal the law,” said Gabe Rose, deputy director of Parent Revolution, which organized the first parent-trigger petition drive.  Ben Austin, executive director of the group, lost his seat on the state education board when Gov. Jerry Brown took office. Brown, who was backed by the teachers’ union,  replaced five charter-friendly board members with a less reform-oriented group. One of the new board members is a lobbyist for the California Teachers Association.

‘Trigger’ parents charge intimidation

Using California’s new “parent trigger” law, 63 percent of Compton parents signed a  petition to turn their chronically low-performing elementary school over to a successful charter network.  Now parents and activists are charging school officials with intimidation and harassment.

Parents said they were informed that every person who signed must come to the school on Wednesday and Thursday for a five-minute meeting with district employees, and must present photo identification and sign a new petition. If people do not show up for any reason, their signature will be eliminated, parents said.

Some parents can’t make the meetings because of work commitments. Others in the heavily Hispanic neighborhood don’t have photo ID because they’re illegal immigrants.

“It’s not about verification! It is purely about disenfranchisement,” said state Sen. Gloria Romero, who sponsored the parent trigger law.

“This is clearly not about ‘verifying’ anything — it is about the district making up new rules to try to throw away the petitions that we have already submitted,” said Ismenia Guzman, a leader of McKinley Parents for Change.

Parents who signed the petition have complained they’ve been threatened with deportation and told the charter school will not take special education students.  Two parents filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department saying their children were harassed by teachers because their parents had signed the petition.

District staffers complain the petition drive was conducted in secret and that nobody at the school knew about the petition till it was presented. They claim parents didn’t understand what they were signing.

Parent Revolution didn’t inform the school district about the petition drive, but organizers must have contacted a very high percentage of parents to get so many to sign. They must have asked parents to help spread the word. Parents had to be talking about it for weeks. And yet, apparently, not a single parent told a teacher or another school staffer about the petition.  Imagine an elementary school in which parents don’t talk to teachers or ask questions.  That’s a very strange environment.

Parent Revolution, founded by a former member of the state board of education,  has a law firm working pro bono.  I don’t think the district will get away with throwing out the signatures.

Parents ‘pull trigger’ on failing school

In a low-income, low-performing, all-minority school district in southern California, Compton Unified parents are going to “pull the trigger” today on McKinley Elementary School, reports Parent Revolution. More than 60 percent of parents have signed a petition to use the new parent trigger law to force change. Under the law, parents can demand a new principal or a new staff or new management by a neighboring charter school with higher performance; they also can demand that the school be closed.

The petitioning parents have chosen a non-profit charter group called Celerity to take over McKinley, starting this summer.  Celerity runs three schools in the Los Angeles area that outscore nearby schools; a fourth school opened this fall. Compared to schools with similar demographics — mostly low-income, Hispanic and black students — Celerity schools do very well.

Less than half of Compton Unified students graduate from high school, Parent Revolution points out. Only three percent of graduates are eligible for California’s state universities.

A recent two-year performance audit highlighted numerous reasons why the district has such poor results, stating, amongst other things, “…the focus in the district at this time is primarily on the adult issues and not on student needs.” And within Compton, McKinley is one of the worst schools – it is ranked in the bottom 10% of elementary schools statewide, even when compared only to schools serving similar student populations.

This will be the first use of the parental trigger law in California. It will be interesting to see if Celerity, which has started its own schools from scratch, can improve an existing school with a history of low performance.

The LA Weekly has a story on the decision by McKinley parents to force change at the school.

Here’s the New York Times story.

On National Journal, the Education Experts are debating school turnarounds.