●●Read Between the lines: Former parent. | Ben Austin. | Parent Revolution. | Green Dot. None of this excuses the record of the school, but these are outside forces and special interests, not levers for change.
By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | LA Daily News
Lydia Grant is part of a group who are trying to improve Mount Gleason Middle School by organizing to radically change the school under a new state Parent Trigger law that allows parents to shut down or overhaul schools. Parents complain of drug use on campus and other problems with the school, which has been in the federal government's notorious program improvement category for 10 years. Photo by David Crane/Los Angeles Daily News (David Crane)
Parents are hope to improve Mount Gleason Middle School by organizing to radically change the school under a new state “Parent Trigger” law that allows parents to shut down or overhaul schools. Parents complain of drug use on campus and other problems with the school, which has been in the federal government's notorious program improvement category for 10 years. Photo by David Crane/Los Angeles Daily News (David Crane)
15 Feb 2009 -- After five years of getting nowhere with Los Angeles Unified officials, fed-up parents in Sunland-Tujunga are using a new state law to force change at a long-troubled middle school.
Parents and community members say problems at Mount Gleason Middle School, which has been on a federal list of under-performing campuses for a dozen years, go beyond failing test scores.
"There is an unsafe atmosphere at this school that is spilling over into the community...," said Lydia Grant, a resident and parent of a former Mount Gleason student. "People are tired of it and we want to see change."
Thanks to new legislation, known as the "parent trigger" law, they're able to do something about it.
The law, approved last month, is part of a legislative package to revamp California's schools and make the state more competitive for $4.35 billion in "Race to the Top" federal stimulus dollars.
It is designed to force districts to take drastic action to fix failing schools if a majority of parents petition for the overhaul. That could include closing a school, firing all staff and re-hiring new teachers and administrators, or turning the school over to an education management firm or a charter operator. The law shifts the power from district officials, administrators and teacher unions to parents.
Still, it is not certain how effective the new law will be. At the same time, Los Angeles Unified is also experimenting with its own reform plan that calls for handing over failing and new schools to outside bidders like charter organizations and nonprofits.
There is also concern that schools with the most organized parents, and not necessarily those with the lowest academic performance, will end up using the law more than others.
"I am in favor of giving parents rights and giving them a voice," LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines said.
"I will gladly make changes at struggling schools... but I will resist when I feel that it becomes a witch hunt against teachers and administrators when a group feels like it didn't get its way."
State officials who sponsored the legislation believe parents know better than school district bureaucrats.
"Parents are the ones who pay taxes, they are the consumers and they cannot wait for ma ana," said state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who authored the reform bill.
Like Mount Gleason, hundreds of schools in California have failed to meet state and federal academic performance benchmarks for years. LAUSD alone has 251 district schools that have failed to meet these goals for more than three years.
"I'm sorry - after a certain point you are no longer credible on the promise that you'll fix it," Romero said. "Parents want change and opportunity now."
For a school to be eligible for takeover under the parent trigger law they must meet criteria that include:
Being labeled a "program improvement" school for more than three consecutive years for failing to meet federal academic benchmarks.
Having an Academic Performance Index (the state's benchmark test) of less than 800, based on the state's ranking system that ranges from 200 to 1,000 points.
Being among the lowest 5 percent of schools in California.
Under the law, district officials will decide which strategies will be taken at a targeted school, but unlike in the past, officials will not have the option of delaying action.
However, LAUSD officials are concerned that some schools, like Mount Gleason Middle, will get caught up in a reform effort when they really don't merit any drastic action.
"This school has blossomed into one of the Northeast Valley's highest performing middle schools," said local District 2 Superintendent Alma Pena-Sanchez.
Pena-Sanchez said that in response to complaints by parents new administrators have been placed at the school to work with special education issues and community outreach.
Academically, Mount Gleason has also leaped 50 points in its API score over the last two years, and suspensions at the campus have dropped considerably.
"They are on an upward-bound trajectory," Pena-Sanchez said.
"Why would you want to reform a school where improvements have been made... and there is buy-in from the teachers and the community?"
Some administrators questioned whether the motivation to have the school taken over was spurred by genuine parent concern, or outward pressure from community groups.
"One thing is for residents of Mount Gleason to initiate this trigger," said Jose Rodriguez, an LAUSD director for the school.
"But it's another thing for an outside group to come in and encourage parents to use this trigger law."
Perhaps Rodriguez was referring to the Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles group that created the idea of a parent trigger, initially to be used in LAUSD.
Ben Austin, executive director of the Parent Revolution, said after the district passed a watered-down version of the trigger, he decided to take the fight to Sacramento.
"The whole purpose of this law is to give parents power," Austin said.
"Parents are in the best position to make decisions about what's good for their kids and their future... Why shouldn't they get more control?"
The Parent Revolution, which has close ties to Green Dot public schools, a large charter management organization in Los Angeles, is working with parents around Mount Gleason and believes that the school could be among the first to be reformed with the new law.
However Austin denied playing anything but an advisory role in the parents' decision to organize.
"We're not orchestrating.... It's very patronizing to think that we would be making these kinds of decisions."
But A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, said the union is very concerned that some schools will be targeted by charter supporters.
"This law was created by entities who have a vested interest in pushing charter schools," Duffy said.
"While we are in full agreement with the idea of parent engagement... this law is vulnerable to outside groups manipulating the process."
Meanwhile, Grant said she is staying focused on rallying parents in her community around change at the school.
Grant's youngest child graduated from the middle school campus more than three years ago, but she said her determination to make lasting change at the campus goes beyond her own self-interests.
"My daughter managed to get through with good teachers and great grades," Grant said.
"But that was only because she got on the right path and had an involved parent. I am fighting for the kids who don't have those things."