LAUSD Education Matters: Tracking the Nation's Second-Largest School System

What's a 'walk-in' and why were they happening at L.A. schools today?

“Let’s go, dolphins, let’s go!” chanted dozens of students, parents and teachers as they walked into 20th Street Elementary School before class, professing love for their neighborhood school, one that might soon become a charter school. 

They were part of a “walk-in” demonstration organized on Wednesday morning by teachers unions in Los Angeles and The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools.

The rallies around the country were hashtagged as #ReclaimOurSchools. In Los Angeles, they highlighted positive experiences at traditional public schools in the face of an increasing number of charter schools.

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The rallies come against the backdrop of an effort to rapidly expand charter schools in L.A. Unified. Charter schools are publicly funded but can be privately run. Most are nonunion. 

Parents at 20th Street filed a petition earlier this month to convert the school into a charter school. To make the change, they’re using the state’s “parent trigger law” that allows parents to decide who will take control of a low-performing campus once the school district confirms that a majority of parents had signed a petition. 

The parent group hasn't yet chosen an organization that would run the charter school. Under state law, only parents who signed the petition will have a vote. The advocacy group helping them, Parent Revolution, is backed by nonprofit organizations that support the growth of charter schools, including the Walton Family Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, the Arnold Foundation and the Broad Foundation.

The petition drive has divided the campus, with supporters accusing teachers of misconduct and retaliation. The union, in turn, has accused Parent Revolution of using deceptive tactics to gather signatures. Both sides have denied any wrongdoing. 

The signs and posters at 20th Street focused on what students loved about their school — the teachers, the music — scrawled in colorful, children's handwriting.

Some rallygoers at Hamilton High School in Palms were more direct in their attack on the charter school expansion plan, which was originally spearheaded by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. That proposal laid out a plan to spend $490 million to double the number of charters in L.A. over eight years. 

Protesters held white posters that proclaimed in black block letters: "Billionaires, have a heart. Your plan will tear our schools apart!" and "Billionaires: Pay your taxes so we can get smaller classes!"

L.A. Unified Supt. Michelle King joined union organizers and school board members for the demonstration at Hamilton High, where she was once principal. The partnership between the school district and the union on this event was emblematic of how those who are part of the traditional education system have put aside differences to rally together against what they perceive as a common threat. 

In other cities, the mood was less cooperative: Chicago teachers targeted district officials for more funding and a fairer contract.

But Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago teachers union, attended a walk-in at Dorsey High School in Baldwin Hills. She was there and not in Chicago because of this week’s American Federation of Teachers executive council meeting. Dorsey was assigned to her, and she wore a sign saying, “Eli Broad, leave our public school alone,” followed by the hashtag “#studentsdeserve.”

On hand at Hamilton was Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. 

"Clearly the fight in L.A. is against billionaires trying to destabilize a public school system," Weingarten said. "This is a fight about whether we provide real opportunities for all kids or whether the privatizers and billionaires get to decide which kids get opportunities and which kids don’t." 

The charter expansion effort has been taken over by a group called Great Public Schools Now, which said it will support successful schools of any kind.

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"We hope to work constructively with any group that shares our deep desire to improve education in Los Angeles, and we support all communities who are rallying for better schools," the group said in a statement in advance of the walk-ins. "We are eager to have a thoughtful discussion about the future of education in Los Angeles without impugning the motives of those who disagree with us."

The gathering at 20th Street Elementary, just south of downtown Los Angeles, began early. 

At 7 a.m., parents, teachers and kids collected in front of the school's doors. Staff wore light blue shirts, their backs emblazoned with the message, “Students, parents, and teachers working together for a better 20th Street Elementary.” On the front, the shirts spelled out those words in Spanish.

Once inside the gates, Principal Mario Garcielita announced a grant from a group called People for Parks that will keep the school’s playground open on Saturdays, beginning in April. He also said the school’s library would be getting a facelift and new books later this month. 

After the rally, students and teachers walked to class, and about 30 parents stayed for a workshop to understand the “Report Card” their school had received from the district.

Union representatives said the event was not a protest of the petition. Rather, it is an effort to take back schools “for the public, for teachers, for students,” and away from the “billionaire privatizing agenda,” said United Teachers Los Angeles spokeswoman Anna Bakalis.

UTLA’s Central Area chairman, Jose Lara, is a teacher at Santee Education Complex, which also held a walk-in. But he chose to spend part of the morning at 20th Street to support the people “who want to keep the school a community school,” he said.

Juan Nelasco found out about the walk-in from his 8-year-old daughter, who is on the student council. She and her siblings had made posters that they hung around their necks with pink yarn. Hers read, “I love 20th Street because they have great teachers and help us.”

Omar Calvillo, a parent and one of the leaders of the petition to convert the school into a charter, was also at the rally. He appreciates the new programs that will allow the school to be open on the weekends, he said in an interview after the walk-in. But he wants his sons to be challenged and better prepared academically, he added.

Reach Sonali Kohli on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli or by email at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com.

Email Howard Blume at howard.blume@latimes.com.

Times staff writer Joy Resmovits contributed to this report.

Editor’s Note: The Times receives funding for its Education Matters digital initiative from one or more of the groups mentioned in this article. The California Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Los Angeles administer grants from the Baxter Family Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the California Endowment and the Wasserman Foundation to support this effort. Under terms of the grants, The Times retains complete control over editorial content.

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