Parents ‘trigger’ change — without a charter

At a Los Angeles school, a parents’ group used the state’s “parent trigger” law to get the changes they wanted, while keeping West Athens Elementary in the school district, writes Natasha Lindstrom for the Hechinger Report.

Los Angeles Unified agreed “to bolster school behavior and safety plans, improve communication between parents and teachers and provide increased professional development and support for teachers,” reports Lindstrom. The district will spend $300,000 to fund a full-time psychologist, a part-time psychiatrist social worker and a full-time attendance officer.

Members of the 24th Street Elementary School parent union meet at a park near their children's Los Angeles school to discuss the next steps to force a major overhaul of their struggling neighborhood school. They're among the first in the nation to use the so-called "parent trigger" law to transform a school. (Photo courtesy Parent Revolution)

Members of the 24th Street Elementary School parent union meet at a park near their children’s Los Angeles school.  (Photo courtesy Parent Revolution)

The law lets a majority of parents at a low-performing school petition for changes “ranging from replacing the principal and half the staff to converting the school into a charter,”  reports Lindstrom.

Gabe Rose, deputy executive director of Parent Revolution, said he views the collaboration as a positive sign that these types of efforts can lead to changes without disrupting and dividing communities. In this case, the parent trigger served as leverage, a negotiating tool to ensure parent concerns were heard, but invoking the actual law didn’t prove necessary, he said.

“Districts have seen the story play out enough times now, I think, that they understand they have to take organized parents seriously because they have real rights and they have real power if they stick together,” Rose said.

Two early trigger campaigns in Adelanto and Compton were fought fiercely. By negotiating with parents, Los Angeles Unified now has avoided a takeover fight at three schools. At 24th Street Elementary, a deal was worked out: The district runs the K-4 grades while a charter operator runs grades 5 to 8.

School safety problems — and a principal who was never available — prompted West Athens parents to form a union, says Winter Hall, whose kindergarten daughter was bullied. Once the instructional director began listening to their concerns, “we opted out of trigger and decided maybe this would work, maybe we could collaborate instead.”

TFA spinoff turns teachers into leaders

Leadership for Educational Equity, which helps Teach for America alumni move into policy and advocacy roles, is expanding rapidly, reports Education Week.

Jennifer Aguirre, who teaches Spanish, won a LEE fellowship with a Baltimore community-organizing group run by a TFA alumnus. She’s now considering a public policy career.

“You have people who know something’s wrong,” she said, “but they need to be given the resources needed and encouragement to step out of their comfort zone and try to tackle a huge problem.”

LEE funds workshops with donations from Teach For America, private foundations and individual donors.

Electoral work amounts to less than a third of LEE’s budget, its officials say, but it has nevertheless fueled popular accounts of the organization, mostly critical. Such accounts accuse the group of supporting candidates who espouse a particular “corporate” brand of education policy focused on expanding charter schools and test-based accountability.

Bill Ferguson, a TFA alumni and LEE member, was elected to Maryland’s Senate, where he’s sponsored “parent trigger” legislation.

LEE officials say the group coaches candidates and reviews their campaign materials but doesn’t support particular policies.

‘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.

‘No confidence’ petition included teachers

A Los Angeles parent trigger campaign forced out the principal of a low-performing school, but most teachers say they’ll leave too, disappointing the parents. Here’s a new wrinkle: In June 2011, months before Weigand Parents United was formed to launch the parent trigger campaign, parents and six teachers signed a petition expressing “no confidence” in the principal, Irma Cobian. Several parents complained she was rude to parents and hostile to special needs students.

The principal stayed at Weigand and all six teachers who signed the petition left, according to Parent Revolution, which helped organize the parent trigger campaign. Teacher turnover has been high at the school: Of 22 teachers at Weigand in Principal Cobian’s first year, 2009-10, 14 have left the school.

During Cobian’s tenure, the school’s Academic Performance Index fell from 717 (23 points above average for Los Angeles Unified schools) to 689 (56 points below the average).

‘Trigger’ parents fire principal: Unfair? Satanic?

A majority of parents at Weigand Avenue Elementary School signed a parent trigger petition asking for a new principal for their chronically low-performing school. Los Angeles Unified will replace Principal Irma Cobian.  Parents had hoped to keep Weigand’s teachers, but 21 of 22 teachers say they’ll transfer, reports the Los Angeles Times.

The story portrays Cobian as a child-hugging, teacher-mentoring paragon who had a plan to turn Weigand around.

Third-grade teacher Kate Lewis said Irma Cobian is the best principal she’s had in nine years at Weigand Avenue Elementary School in Watts.

Joseph Shamel called Cobian a “godsend” who has used her mastery of special education to show him how to craft effective learning plans for his students.

The story implies Weigand was making progress during Cobian’s four-year tenure, which started in 2009-10. The school’s low Academic Performance Index scores have declined slightly; students are doing about the same in reading and worse in math. The school rates a 1 out of 10 compared to all elementary schools in the state, a 2 compared to schools with similar demographics.

LA Times commenters attack the parents — most are low-income Latinos — as too stupid, lazy and uncaring to help their kids learn at home or appreciate their principal’s efforts. Many blame Parent Revolution, which is organizing parent trigger campaigns.

Anti-reformer Diane Ravitch assigned a “special place in hell” to Parent Revolution and its supporters. Ben Austin, who runs the group, is a “loathsome” person who . . . ruined the life of a good person for filthy lucre, she writes.

I agree with Rick Hess. Replacing Cobian may not help, but it’s not unreasonable for parents to seek new leadership.

Llury Garcia, coordinator for Weigand Parents United, said in a private communication, “We love the teachers at our school and don’t want them to leave. However… many of the teachers have turned on us, calling us ‘uneducated’ and unable to make good decisions for our children. By trying to support the principal who is leaving after years of failure, the teachers are the ones now trying to divide our community.”

It’s possible the principal was “on the cusp of turning things around . . . but parents didn’t think so,” Ben Austin wrote Hess. “The parents felt they had waited long enough.”

Hess knows both Ravitch and Austin personally, which I don’t. He thinks Ravitch has gone off the deep end rhetorically: Austin is “smart, well-intentioned, passionate, humble, and nice,” according to Hess.

Austin is a liberal Democrat who thinks empowering parents is the way to force schools to improve. I’m not sure he’s right, but I’m fairly sure he’s not doomed to burn in hell for trying.

“Once-respected education historian Diane Ravitch no longer deserves to be taken seriously,” writes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation.

Parent trigger used to oust principal

Using the parent trigger law, Los Angeles parents have ousted the principal of their low-performing elementary school. The school board voted 5-2 to accept the parents petition after 61 percent of parents signed on.

Weigand Elementary parents didn’t ask for a charter school. They want to fire the principal.

“We support our teachers,” said mother Llury Garcia.

“I think that the teachers are very intimidated right now” by Principal Irma Cobian, whom Garcia said is rarely on campus and has been unresponsive to parent complaints in the past.

The district will name a new principal for the school, which serves low-income Hispanic students.

Parent Revolution, which helped Weigand parents organize, is touting the campaign as evidence trigger laws are about empowering parents, not promoting charter schools.

“We keep hearing about how “parent trigger” is anti-teacher and about privatizing schools,” writes Eduwonk. The Weigand trigger could change the debate.

Pulling the parent trigger

More than a half-dozen states now have parent trigger laws that let a majority of parents seize control of a low-performing school, notes Education Next.

Empowered Families Can Transform the System, argues Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, which has led the parent trigger drives.

Parents enduring a parent trigger campaign are transformed. Some, like the parents at Desert Trails, are forced to endure lengthy legal battles, a process most of them have never experienced. Others, including the parents of 24th Street Elementary School and also Haddon Avenue Elementary in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), find a responsive school district that wants to collaborate with them in changing their school.

. . . Many of these parents, for the first time in their lives, feel real power, not only over their child’s destiny but over their own as well. These parents, and parents like them, are the key to the future of public education in America.

“Parents don’t care if a public school is a traditional district school or a charter school,” writes Austin. “They just want it to be a good school.”

There’s a Better Way to Unlock Parent Power, responds Michael J. Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation. While “it’s worth experimenting with the parent trigger,” it’s not likely to turn around many schools or force significant reform.

First, the parent trigger mechanism itself will continue to get bogged down in lawsuits and other blocking tactics, as has been the case to date. Second, if and when the trigger gets pulled, the resulting school turnarounds won’t generally amount to much. And third, empowering parents via the parent trigger (creating a “bargaining chip”) won’t be enough to force larger changes in dysfunctional districts—because nothing will force such change.

Petrilli favors expanding school choice with more charter schools, vouchers and digital learning. Even if choice doesn’t force districts to improve, it will give parents more options for their children, he argues.

Try the trigger, writes Checker Finn, also of Fordham. Since “most bad districts are going to stay bad,” serious reformers need to “give kids every possible exit” into something better. “Helping an entire school to extricate itself from the dysfunctional system is surely one such strategy. Instead of pooh-poohing it, how about we put it on the list of possibilities, wish it well, and do our damnedest to help it succeed as often as possible?”

‘Trigger’ parents choose LAUSD, charter

What happens when a school district works with a “parent trigger” campaign instead of fighting it? “Parents at 24th Street Elementary School have overwhelmingly chosen a partnership between the Los Angeles Unified School District and a charter school to run the persistently low-performing Jefferson Park campus,” reports the Los Angeles Times.

Eighty percent of eligible voters chose to let the district manage K-4 classes and let Crown Preparatory Academy, which already runs a middle school on campus, run a program for students in grades five through eight.

Under LA Unified’s reform plan, parents will participate in a hiring committee. Teachers who want to stay at the school will have to interview with the committee to keep their jobs.

Parents said they were impressed with the district’s ability to offer pre-school education and services to disabled students. They said they liked the charter because of its demonstrated ability to raise academic achievement.

Eighty-seven percent of 24th Street Elementary students qualify for a subsidized lunch; 75 percent are Latino and 23 percent are black.

Private and public parents

Ed reformer Michelle Rhee, who described herself as a “public school parent,” is also a private school parent:  One of her two daughters, who live with her ex-husband in Tennessee, goes to private school. (When Rhee ran Washington D.C. schools, she sent her daughters to public school in the city.)

Anti-reformer Diane Ravitch criticized Rhee for not admitting that one of her kids goes to private school till she was outed, apparently by the American Federation of Teachers.

In New York City, Leonie Haimson, founder of  the NYC Public School Parents blog and Class Size Matters and a Ravitch ally, also turns out to be a private school parent, Gotham Schools revealed.

A fierce critic of education reformers, charter schools, testing and Mayor Bloomberg, Haimson chose private school for her daughter and son for the small classes she wants for all students, she wrote on the NYC Public School Parents blog.

Haimson criticized “Rhee and President Barack Obama for sending their children to private schools with small class sizes while not pushing for the same priorities for public schools,” notes the Wall Street Journal.

“Leonie has to do what is best for her kids,” said Joe Williams, who as head of advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform has often clashed with Ms. Haimson. “The only problem is that she keeps choosing to defend the same awful schools she would never allow her kids to attend.”

At Dropout Nation, RiShawn Biddle backs school choice for all parents, from   Haimson to low-income parents. Those who can’t afford private school tuition rely on “school choice — from charters to vouchers to tax credit programs to Parent Trigger laws to online learning options”  to free their children from dropout factories, writes Biddle.

If public figures choose private school for their own kids are they obliged to support school choice? If they oppose public school reforms, are they obliged to send their kids to public schools?

No ‘parent trigger’ fight in Los Angeles

California’s first two parent trigger campaigns were bitter fights, but Los Angeles parents seeking to transform 24th Street Elementary have found a “willing partner” in the school district, reports EdSource Today.

Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy met them and promised “to work side by side with you so every student – todos los niños – gets an outstanding education.” United Teachers Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher showed up unexpectedly at their press conference and vowed to collaborate with them, too.

The school’s parents union say 68 percent of parents signed the trigger petition, far more than the 50 percent needed.

Los Angeles Unified already has identified 24th Street Elementary as one of the worst performing in the district.

. . . before the parents handed in their petition, Deasy returned the school’s transformation plan, written by the principal and a team of teachers in consultation with a half-dozen parents and Parent Revolution organizers, as insufficient.

It was, however, candid in explaining the need for change: “We have continued to operate in the same manner for years and have consequently yielded the same ineffective results,” it said. “Rather than learn from our operational miscues and poor communication and look to our past for guidance, we have allowed the accretion of our failures to weigh us down.”

The 24th Street Elementary School Parents Union has set deadlines for converting the school to a charter by next fall, but parents could agree to an in-district school transformation plan, says Ben Austin of Parent Revolution.