Compton Parents Use New 'Trigger Law' To Demand Charter School

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COMPTON, Calif. (AP) -- Chanting "yes we can!" and "si se puede!", a busload of parents on Tuesday became the first in California to try to force reforms at their children's failing school using the state's new "parent-trigger" law.

The group of Latino and African-American parents delivered a petition signed by 62 percent of parents at McKinley Elementary School to Compton Unified Acting Superintendent Karen Frison.

The campus ranks in the bottom 10 percent of California's elementary schools. With the petition, the new law mandates the campus be converted to a charter school next September.

Frison said she would review the petition with the school board.

"Although we have not been given an opportunity to discuss the concerns of the school's parents, the district looks forward to addressing all concerns," Frison said in a statement.

Parent leader Ismenia Guzman, whose daughter attends McKinley, said: "Us parents, we care. I don't want our kids struggling in poor schools."

The action was a landmark in the school reform movement. California was the first state in the nation to adopt a parent-trigger law, which stipulates that a district must make radical changes at a school that has failed to meet progress benchmarks for four years when at least 51 percent of parents sign a petition for reform.

Parents choose the reform they want--conversion to a charter school, replacing the principal and staff, rebudgeting, or even closure.
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California's law was adopted in January and inspired a similar law in Connecticut. Six other states, including New Jersey and Michigan, are now considering parent-triggers.

"This is the beginning of a revolution," said Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based education reform nonprofit that spearheaded the law in California and the McKinley campaign.

"Parents are waking up to the fact that their schools are failing because they are run on an agenda designed for adults," Austin said. "This is a kids first agenda."

Calling the action "parent power," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he hoped the Compton parents would serve as an inspiration to other, especially in predominantly minority districts.

"It's really terrific for those parents to rise up," he said.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan also applauded parents and community organizations for taking charge of their children's future.

However, the state teachers union said the action was misplaced because reform was already under way at McKinley through a teacher-led program to boost reading and math.

State test scores at the school have risen 77 points over the past two years, said Frank Wells, Southern California representative for the California Teachers Association.

"We've got something that appears to be working," he said. "We would've preferred that the parents pushing this would've been more amenable to working with the teachers in the school."

An impoverished city located on the southeastern edge of Los Angeles, Compton has long been home to troubled school district. Roughly half its students drop out of high school, and only 3 percent of graduates meet entrance eligibility requirements for state universities.

A report by a state-mandated assessor issued in July found cause for "grave concern about the future of learning opportunities for students" and determined the district was focused on the needs of adults, not students.

That report caught Austin's eye. "Compton Unified seemed like a place that needed change," he said.

In September, Parent Revolution organizers started knocking on doors and talking to people about the schools. McKinley soon emerged as a school ripe for revolt.

The K-5 school, which serves nearly 500 students--60 percent Hispanic and 40 percent African-American--has made its adequate yearly progress goal only once since 2003 and has had a succession of principals during the past five years. McKinley ranks 22nd among the district's 24 elementary schools.

McKinley parents said they were fed up.

Heberto Hidalgo said teachers kept telling him his three children were doing great, but at home he noticed they struggled with homework and found they didn't turn it in. "That makes me wonder what's going on," he said.

Lupita Munoz said her son was transferred to a different class three times last year. When she complained, she was shrugged off by teachers and administrators. This year, her son's teacher is absent a lot.

"I'm frustrated," she said. "This is affecting my son."

Parents started holding meetings at their homes and gathering signatures in front of the school.

Parent Marlene Romero said school staff pushed back, saying the charter school would charge tuition and would not accept special needs children. It suggested the petition was really aimed at closing the school, Romero said.

Teachers showed up uninvited at meetings to dissuade parents.

"Their arguments weren't about benefits for our kids. It was about their jobs," said Munoz, who like many parents was wearing a T-shirt Tuesday emblazoned with "I am the revolution." Her preschool kids wore shirts that said, "The revolution is about me."

Wells said the union would be looking into how the petition campaign was conducted and whether open discussions were held at the school, with an eye toward possible legal action.

"We have concerns about how parents were informed," he said.

Austin was undaunted. Parents are slated to meet with representatives of the selected charter group, Celerity Education Group, on Wednesday to start planning the school transformation.

"Parents are the only ones who really care about their children," Austin said. "The only way to actually change things is to take power away from adults with an agenda."

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