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Unwelcome Support : Parents: Those who have organized centers at city schools are not pleased with district plans to take charge and standardize their programs.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just one more case of school district bureaucrats meddling in a program that’s doing just fine, thank you.

That’s the reaction of many who learned recently that the Los Angeles Unified School District is planning a takeover of “parent centers” that have spread to about 75 campuses citywide.

The centers have in the past few years evolved into unique programs, all without much help, or notice, from the district. Largely reflecting the interests of parent volunteers, the centers have offered classes ranging from language to sewing and crafts. Some of the centers have offered free immunizations; others have held workshops on discipline, report cards and getting the most out of teacher conferences.

But now, district officials say they want to take charge and standardize the parent center offerings. Critics say this is a step backward from district promises to relinquish more power to local schools and parents.

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Leading the way for change is Assistant Supt. Liliam Castillo, the newly appointed head of the district’s 3-week-old Parent Community Services branch. Acting on orders from Supt. Sid Thompson--and recommendations from a task force to spur parent involvement--Castillo said she intends to revamp the centers and train parent volunteers to operate in a more standardized fashion.

“The local centers, mostly, are not doing enough,” Castillo said. “They’re not bad, they’re just a start and they really need expansion. . . . Where does the parent go who wants information about school budgets, programs, college applications? It shouldn’t just be English classes and needlepoint.”

Try telling that to some of the volunteer parents who have built these small programs on a shoe-string budget. They work with little money and, in some cases, without even a regular classroom in which to meet.

“Come on, this is ridiculous,” said Tony Alcala, who has helped several schools establish their parent centers. “They’re going to take control and every time a parent center wants to do something, we’ll have to ask for permission from Downtown. I do not support this at all and I don’t trust that they will really help us.”

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The district disagrees. In line with their efforts to reform and restructure the school system, officials say they want these centers to be located at all campuses, and to be responsive to all parents--not just a small group of mothers and fathers who have the time to volunteer.

Even some school administrators are siding with parents. Although they admit the programs now serve only a small number of parents, they benefit many who never before volunteered or spent much time at their children’s school.

They say just getting a parent to come to school for something other than to drop off or pick up their children is a giant step. And, like some parents, they question whether the district bureaucracy will able to do as well or better.

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“I think we have a core of very dedicated, intelligent and hard-working people,” said Kathleen O’Driscoll, the assistant principal at Oxnard Street Elementary School in North Hollywood. “The first goal is to get the parents involved in the school and to help make them feel comfortable here.”

The centers, the majority of which were created over the last couple of years, draw parents by offering the free classes and workshops.

Each of the centers reflects the interests of the coordinators and the parents themselves, but most offer language courses for non-English speaking parents, as well as sewing and crafts classes.

For her part, Castillo says the new parent unit wants to support the schools and help make the centers more useful and interesting. She said the goal is to open parent centers on all campuses, offering parent education classes as well as health care services.

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With district officials directing the centers, she said, parents throughout the city will receive the same information and services.

“They’re just not equal in terms of what they do now,” Castillo said. “I think they are working in some communities but not in all. If you’re the middle-class Valley parent who only belongs to the local PTA, you’re not getting the same information as the parent who goes to a parent center and finds out more.”

The centers are mostly in predominantly minority schools with low-income students because three years ago the district set aside some special Chapter One funding. Last year, for example, the district spent about $300,000 for all 75 centers.

While every region of the giant school district has at least one parent center, most--50--are in the San Fernando Valley. Assistant Supt. Sally Coughlin, who until recently oversaw all Valley elementary schools, distributed the special funds allocated to the Valley to schools that wanted to establish the centers.

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“We did not want it to be a cookie-cutter movement,” Coughlin said. “We wanted them to be different and unique. It just grew through word-of-mouth, but the problem has been finding the space on these crowded campuses.”

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In other areas of the city, regional centers were created so that parents from different schools could attend classes together and get to know each other. Centers have also been started at schools without special Chapter One funds after parents became interested in the idea.

Isabel Martinez, a mother of eight who helped open the first parent center in the district at Telfair Avenue Elementary in Pacoima, said she has seen dramatic changes in the mothers who have taken classes at the center.

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“Even in the way they walk, you can tell they’ve had our classes,” Martinez said. “They’re more sure of themselves, they’re proud to be here.”

While Martinez says the centers need to be expanded, she says the parents should be the ones deciding how they are run and what classes are offered. “We’re working well here,” Martinez said. “It’s very rewarding. I’ve seen the changes in these women.”

Nonetheless, Martinez said that the district could be helpful “as long as we’re asking them--not them asking us.”

In Room 21 at Noble Avenue Elementary in North Hills, more than 250 parents meet regularly for classes on motivating their children, discipline and the importance of higher education. Louis Carrillo, a school coordinator, said the parents need to be in charge of their center.

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“If they (district officials) come in with a mandatory set of ideas, I see that as a potential problem,” he said.

At Oxnard Street, where an enthusiastic group met last week to discuss the fall’s course offerings, the parents say they are proud of their work. The group met in a cramped office, their voices often drowned out by a copy machine, and settled on English, sewing and arts and crafts.

“I’ve learned that I can make a difference,” said Susana Martinez, a mother of two who coordinates the Oxnard parent center. “I can come here and make change.”


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