In Partnership with 74

After denying parent trigger, district meets with school but some parents are still unhappy

Mike Szymanski | March 16, 2016

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20th Street parents discussing petition. By Omar Calvillo.

About 100 parents from 20th Street Elementary School met Tuesday night in the auditorium with more than a dozen school administrators after the district denied a “parent trigger” that would allow them to make sweeping changes to the school. Some of the parents were still unhappy, however.

“It was like a big cheerleading session,” said parent Omar Calvillo, who is on the school site council and the English Learner Advisory Committee and one of the parents who started the petition drive under the state’s Parent Empowerment Act. The act, also known as parent trigger, is geared toward underperforming schools so that parents can force changes in instruction and personnel or even create a charter school.

The Parents Union tried for nearly three years to make changes at the school and threatened to file a parent trigger petition last year but withdrew it when the district promised to make changes. They filed in February after they said no changes were made this school year, and they were equally underwhelmed at Tuesday’s meeting.

“They offered no plans to improve education whatsoever,” Calvillo said. “It was very disappointing.”

But Local District Central Superintendent Roberto Martinez told LA School Report that he thought the meeting went very well and that they answered many of the parents’ concerns. He mentioned some of the immediate responses the district has made regarding the initial petition, including changing the principal seven months ago, creating a new reading pilot reading program and getting a grant to keep the school open on Saturdays and allow more parents to be trained and involved.

“We want the parents to be involved and empower them to ask the right questions,” Martinez said. “Our expectation for the teachers is that they communicate where the children are at every step of their education. There are immediate changes going on, and it’s happening right now.”

More than 58 percent, or the 342 families (and more are still signing on), signed a petition for the parent trigger, but last weekend, in the final hours before the district’s Saturday deadline to respond, the district said the school was ineligible for four reasons, which some say are counter-intuitive to the law. Parent Revolution, a nonprofit group that helps parents organize and take over a failing campus, said that some of the district’s arguments were similar to arguments made by Anaheim’s school district in rebuffing a similar parent trigger, but those were rejected by a judge last summer. The case is on appeal.

Seth Litt, Parent Revolution’s CEO who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said, “It was highly disorganized and was filled with empty phrases.” Litt, who was previously principal of a failing school, said the district should have offered a specific instructional plan and explained why it has taken so long for it to take action. “If I made a presentation like that, I would have been fired before I got out the door,” he said.

But one of the parents at the meeting who was against the parent trigger petition asked for those in favor of the new direction of the school to stand up, and all but about a half dozen did, Martinez said. Meanwhile, principals from feeder schools Nava College Prep and Jefferson High School attended the meeting to explain the path toward the high-achieving schools that their children will attend.

MonicaGarcia2School board member Monica Garcia, who represents the district, told LA School Report that she met many times with the parents of 20th Street and felt their frustration.

“I am expecting that the energy to transform and improve is being received by the district, and I think the parent leaders have been successful in creating urgency and identifying needs and in challenging the campus and district to provide high-quality opportunities for every child in that school. I know that the superintendent, local district superintendent, principal and other people are paying attention. While there may not be agreement about the how, the what is very real and concrete.”

Garcia said there are many factions among the parents, and some want to turn the school into a charter school. Garcia said the area has a proliferation of charter schools, and the neighborhood is becoming more safe.

“Parents are seeing what is going on at other schools and want their children to have that same opportunity,” Garcia said. “What we need to do is have the same opportunities for all students. This is an effort to improve a school from the district’s perspective, and I have heard leadership embrace that end. I’ve heard people at multiple levels in how to support that campus and engage all the campus and accelerate the pace of academic growth.”

The district needs to act faster, Garcia acknowledged. “I think one of the things we learned from all this is that the acceleration was not fast enough. For the parent who has a kid in fifth grade, time is precious. Parent trigger is one of those ways that parents can engage.”

Calvillo said that he and many of the families signing the petition live very close to the school. He lives a block away and has lived in the neighborhood for 39 years. He went to the school in the 1980s and said there were many more activities and after-school programs then.

“I want my local neighborhood school to be the same for my two boys and not have to take them even a mile away to another school,” Calvillo said. “We have waited too long for changes, and there haven’t been any.”

Calvillo did say he liked both of the teachers his sons now have but said the course instruction has been sporadic among the teachers. He also said for years he had been pushing for typing instruction especially since the students now take state tests on computers. He said his son in second grade recently told him they were now finally learning to type. He also said the district also assigned the school an assistant principal who is very proactive.

But Calvillo said he was angry that the school police were also at the meeting, and their presence intimidated some of the parents.

The Parents Union that filed the trigger petition said they have asked for proposals for help and looked at Magnolia Charter, which some of the parents said they visited and were impressed with. The parents also met with Superintendent Michelle King and Garcia to consider Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which at the request of Parent Revolution applied to help the school reorganize. The Partnership receives some waivers from the district, but their 17 schools are not charters.

The parents have not decided their next step, but that could include legal action. The Anaheim school district put aside $1 million to fight their parent trigger case.

“You would think that the district wouldn’t want to waste taxpayer money fighting this,” said attorney Mark Holscher, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, which has represented school districts in two other parent trigger cases pro bono. “This is an act passed by the state, and they are trying to find a way around it. This is the first time in California a district has essentially refused to even follow the parent trigger law.”

Charlene Cheng, of the California Department of Education communications department, said the parent trigger issue is “handled at the local level, so we won’t be able to comment.”

Meanwhile, Martinez said he and his staff are trying to bring all the parents and their concerns together and address each one of them. “There are a lot of changes happening, we want the parents to be a part of it and empower them.”

The Parents Union plans to decide within the next week whether it will pursue legal options.

“People don’t understand how beat up we feel,” Calvillo said. “We have a total lack of trust and faith with this school district.”

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