By Howard Blume and Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times | http://lat.ms/dVTLT1
As her daughter Alexandra looks on, parent Ismenia Guzman presents the petition to Karen Frison, acting superintendent of Compton schools. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times / December 7, 2010)
December 8, 2010 -- The Compton Unified School District looked like an ideal target to an organization created to help parents force dramatic reforms at poorly performing schools.
For many years, the troubled school system of 26,000 students south of downtown Los Angeles has had campuses with low test scores, distracted management, a poor reputation and, its critics say, hostility to change. It also has parents dissatisfied enough with their children's education to take on the local bureaucracy.
On Tuesday, those factors came together as 85 adults and children arrived at Compton's district headquarters to present a petition signed by 62% of parents at McKinley Elementary, one of the state's worst-performing schools. The petition requires the district to turn management of McKinley over to a charter school company. Charters are independently operated public schools.
Organizers say the effort is the first to use California's new "parent-trigger" law, under which a majority of parents can force a school to shut down, replace its staff or convert to a charter.
Compton Unified has no recourse under California law, state officials said, even though McKinley's test scores have risen significantly the last two years and steadily over the last six. The school's two-year 77-point rise on the state's Academic Performance Index is among the highest in California.
Critics have characterized the parent trigger as an overly blunt, sometimes counterproductive instrument. But the effect, say supporters, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is to put children and parents ahead of employees and interest groups.
"Giving power to the parents — this is what this is all about," Schwarzenegger said in a conference call Tuesday with reporters. The governor applauded the McKinley effort and described as "unacceptable" the education some children in the state receive. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan also praised the developments in Compton.
At district headquarters, parents chanted "Yes, we can!" as Karen Frison, acting superintendent of Compton schools, accepted the petition. Telling the group she would "do what is required by law," she declined to answer questions. (Her predecessor was recently fired over allegedly improper use of district credit cards.)
"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 released later.
Elizabeth Alvarez was among a number of McKinley parents who said Tuesday that they have waited in vain for the district to answer their complaints.
Alvarez said the school's administration has not responded to her calls — for instance, after a substitute teacher reportedly swore at her first-grade daughter last year — and has never sent home the results of standardized test scores, leaving her in the dark about how her children are performing.
"The system is failing us," said Alvarez's husband, Hebert Hidalgo.
McKinley administrators did not return calls, and the principal declined to step out of his office to answer questions. He cited orders from superiors forbidding media contact.
Parents said repeated unresponsiveness is partly what motivated them to take action. It also helped make the district vulnerable to the politically savvy group behind the effort.
Joining the governor's conference call was Ben Austin, a state Board of Education member and the chief executive of Parent Revolution, a nonprofit that lobbied for the parent-trigger law. His group spun off last year from Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school company, and Green Dot founder Steve Barr heads the Parent Revolution board.
Austin said his goal is not so much to create more charters as to improve public education using the lever of parental power.
He and Barr were key figures behind the one other local example of a school converted to a charter through an outside organization: Locke High in South Los Angeles in 2008.
"The obvious connection between McKinley and Locke is Ben Austin and Green Dot and Steve Barr," said Alexander Russo, an education blogger writing a book about Green Dot's takeover of Locke. "And there's also the sense that both situations involved people from their organizations doing something a school district seemed otherwise unable or unwilling to do."
At Locke, Barr and his then-lieutenant Austin worked behind the scenes with allied teachers to gather signatures on a petition. There, they used an older law that allowed a school's teachers to force a charter conversion. In the end, Green Dot retained few teachers.
At McKinley, with Austin's new group, the goal also was to keep things quiet. Compton school board members and a district spokesperson said they knew little about the petition a day before its delivery.
The California Teachers Assn. criticized the petition drive, saying it lacked transparency and deprived parents of the chance to weigh all options.
But former state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), author of the parent-trigger legislation, said staying under the radar was necessary to prevent opposition from mobilizing.
"The parents choose," she said. "If they didn't like this option, they could have said, 'I don't want to sign the petition.' "
Not all parents supported the effort. Sandra Guillory, who has three children at McKinley, said she was happy with the school. The bilingual Guillory said organizers did not thoroughly explain the ramifications of the petition to some Spanish speakers, telling some only to "sign this paper. It's good for schools."
Compton Unified's reputation for troubled schools is not new. In 1993, it became the first district in California taken over for educational bankruptcy, an ignominy that lingers.
The district's test scores are rising but still among the state's worst, at 649 on the Academic Performance Index scale, which has a target of 800. Across the country, poor test scores are endemic at most schools and districts with low-income minority students.
At the elementary level, Compton Unified has accomplished some turnarounds, including a widely praised initiative at Bunche Elementary. But the district alienated that school's top administrators, who left, and the school's scores subsequently declined somewhat.
Compton also has been hostile to charter schools. Unlike Los Angeles and other districts, Compton Unified has never authorized one within its boundaries, even though state law requires approving all valid charter petitions. In one case, state officials overruled the district, forcing it to house a charter on an unused portion of an elementary school campus.
To take over McKinley, organizers recruited locally based Celerity Educational Group, a charter that has strong test scores but no experience taking over a traditional school.
"This is the beginning of a new future of our kids," said parent leader Ismenia Guzman as she turned in the blue binder filled with signatures.