By Teresa Watanabe and Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times | http://lat.ms/hu33vS
Ismenia Guzman, who has led efforts to persuade McKinley Elementary School parents to petition for change, picks up her daughter, Alexandra, 6. (Michael Robinson Chavez, Los Angeles Times / December 5, 2010)
December 7, 2010 -- Ismenia Guzman frets that her 6-year-old daughter is at least a year behind in reading. Victor Barela is worried that his fifth-grade grandson still doesn't know his multiplication and division tables. And Shemika Murphy is determined that her younger daughter get a better education than her older one, who seemed to be doing well in elementary school only to bring home Ds and Fs in middle school.
Together, they and scores of other families whose children attend struggling McKinley Elementary School in Compton plan the first test of a new law that allows parents to force sweeping changes at the state's lowest-performing schools.
On Tuesday, they intend to present a petition signed by 61% of McKinley parents that would require the Compton Unified School District to bring in a charter company to run the school. Charter schools are independently operated public schools.
"I know it's never been done before, but I want to step up because I'm a parent who cares about my children and their education," Murphy said Monday. She and other parents were meeting with organizers from Parent Revolution, a nonprofit that lobbied successfully last year for the so-called parent-trigger law.
Organizers say the law and the Compton effort represent a paradigm shift in putting children first and giving their parents a decisive voice in demanding better schools.
But the mobilization at McKinley has raised concerns. Two school board members and a district spokesman said they were not aware of the petition drive before being contacted Monday by the media, and the state teachers union criticized the effort's low profile.
"How transparent was this process?" asked Frank Wells, a spokesman for the California Teachers Assn. "Did they hold forums for parents to discuss what's going on with the school staff?" He also said the chosen charter, Celerity Educational Group, should have competed publicly against other possible choices.
McKinley ranks among California's lowest-performing schools on state standardized tests, even when compared with schools that enroll students of similar backgrounds. Three-quarters of its fifth graders are not proficient in reading or math. The same tests show that it also ranks among the state's most rapidly improving schools, rising 77 points in the last two years on the state's Academic Performance Index.
McKinley benefited from a state grant that allowed a talented core of teachers to make promising gains, said school board member Margie Garrett. She said the school's recently hired principal deserves a chance to build on the gains.
Under the law, he may not get that chance. The district has the right to verify the petition signatures but little room to block the parents' chosen course, said Nicolas Schweizer, executive director of the state Board of Education.
The parent recruitment effort included an unannounced recent visit and pep talk for McKinley parents from Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor. Rhee had closed several struggling schools and fired scores of teachers this year before the political fallout pushed her to resign.
Rhee, who announced her own national reform movement Monday, called Students First issued a statement calling the McKinley petition an important precedent in wresting control of schools from "special interests and big bureaucracies."
The Compton effort began in September, when organizers from the Los Angeles-based Parent Revolution began canvassing the school district's neighborhoods.
Ben Austin, the organization's executive director and a state board of education member, said Compton was chosen in part because the district had received a withering state audit in July. That report expressed "grave reservations" about the district's capacity to make significant achievement gains and found that staff members put adult needs over those of children, were not accountable for their work or ethical behavior and lacked civility.
District test scores have been rising in recent years but remain low.
Austin said concerns about potential retaliation against parents had prompted his organizers to work quietly. The group had settled on McKinley because of parent interest, he said.
Guzman, for instance, said she had noticed that her first-grade daughter could pick out words but could not read grade-level books. The mother also said she was troubled by excessive teacher absences.
Other parents said they were concerned about safety, citing cases of children who had wandered out of class and even off campus. They also complained about dirty bathrooms and hostile staff treatment of children, including name-calling.
A Compton Unified spokesman did not respond Monday to the allegations.
Organizers said the effort at McKinley would be the first of many in California and nationwide. The state allows for 75 such conversions, and other parent-trigger laws are in various stages in other states.
"The only way to succeed is to bring about a radical and unapologetic transfer of raw power from defenders of the status quo to parents, because they're the only ones who care only about kids," Austin said.
smf on moonlighting: Ben Austin, in addition to his paid executive directorship of Parent Revolution/LA Parent Union (unholy-owned subsidiaries of Green Dot Public Schools) and his unconfirmed (and not likely to be) appointment to the State Board of Education is an Assistant City Attorney for the City of Los Angeles. [follow the $ :: see this]