Jaqueline Chamol was looking at test scores online and was unimpressed by Gardena High, her son's neighborhood school, but she wasn't sure where to turn for help with other options.
Then, at a local charity fundraiser, she met organizers from Parent Revolution. Since January, the nonprofit has helped nearly 300 South Los Angeles families complete applications for schools, providing them with customized research, advice and, in some cases, even representation at schools.
"We think it is important that families know about all their options," said Seth Litt, the organization's executive director. "We intentionally want to support school choice for families and students who might otherwise not have the resources to be active choosers of quality."
For some, Parent Revolution is a controversial choice itself. Since 2010, the group has used the state's "parent trigger" law to organize parents to take control of local public schools with low test scores. In some instances, parents have voted to replace administrators or to turn campuses over to charter school operators.
Parent Revolution's main funders are well-known charter supporters, leading some to speculate that the group's agenda is to promote, and recruit for, those schools.
"There is no downside to an objective outreach and information program if it is truly about information and objectivity," said L.A. Board of Education President Steve Zimmer. "I am interested in how Parent Revolution might set aside their tools of combat and assume a role more based in collaboration than competition. For way too long, the approach of Parent Revolution and the orthodox choice advocates has been to promote one kind of school — usually a charter — at the direct expense of district schools."
Charters are independently run and free from some rules that govern traditional public schools. Most are non-union. Their growth is one factor placing serious strains on the L.A. Unified schools budget.
Although Parent Revolution's new effort coincided with plans by other groups for a massive charter school expansion, the organization insists it has tried to be evenhanded as it assesses the 120-plus schools in its eight-square-mile target area.
"We did a lot of research to understand where higher-quality schools still had open seats, both on the district and charter side, and made sure to present those options to families as places they were more likely to get in," chief strategy officer Gabe Rose said.
Parents who went through the counseling applied to an average of 4.3 schools, according to the group, and 63% applied to charter and district options, such as popular magnet programs, including some for students who are gifted academically or artistically.
Parent Revolution's venture, in any case, clearly addresses a need. It underscores the lack of comprehensive, organized help for parents, especially those without middle-class resources. District officials said they hope to create a straightforward online portal for comparing and choosing schools and managing different application forms, rules and deadlines, but they have no timetable for doing so.
Until then, parents who have time and expertise to negotiate the system retain a huge advantage.
Chamol doesn't speak English, but she's been resourceful enough to tour charters and enroll a child in a specialized district program. She explored getting permits for her son Luis to leave L.A. Unified and enroll in Torrance Unified but said she seemed to be getting the runaround.
Parent Revolution contacted schools on her behalf and offered to accompany her on appointments. Its counselors also presented alternatives, including Legacy STEAM, a district-run school in South Gate, which is smaller than Gardena High and has performed somewhat better on standardized tests.
In a meeting at a park outside the Rosecrans Recreation Center, Alison Gonzalez and Ruth Olivares also suggested that Chamol consider a nearby charter, Alliance Health Services Academy High School. Overall, its scores were about the same as Gardena's, but they said Alliance schools generally performed well compared with traditional campuses — and there was a good chance Chamol's son could get in.
They also strongly recommended Environmental Charter High School, whose test scores surpassed Gardena High's. Chamol had toured the charter and liked it but had concerns about the surrounding neighborhood.
The counselors had done their homework. They knew how long the waiting lists were for 10th grade charter openings and understood the permitting process for exiting or entering a district or school.
Their school profiles include test scores in reading and math for each specific school and for L.A. Unified as a whole, as well as the average for schools in the area. They also list student and teacher attendance rates and graduation and college-preparatory completion rates for high schools.
The counselors said Chamol would have more choices in the fall, when the windows would open to apply to charters and special district programs.
In another parent session in July, Gonzalez met Elizabeth Bautista at a McDonald's in South Los Angeles. After reviewing options, Bautista said she would stick with her original choice for 11-year-old Jack, the district-run Business and Technology School at the Nava Learning Academy.
Shavon Holland had been warned against the local middle school by a teacher at her children's district elementary school. She discovered Parent Revolution at a community meeting for Avalon Gardens, a low-income housing development. After two counseling sessions, she settled on a charter, KIPP Philosophers Academy, for her son and daughter.
"That experience changed my life and my kids' lives," she said.
Gardena High Principal Rosie Martinez declined to criticize Parent Revolution's efforts and said she is willing to "own" her school's test scores, which she is working to improve: In 2015, 41% of students tested as proficient or better in English and 19% did so in math.
Figures on a page, however, don't entirely capture her campus, she added.
She said her school developed a cutting-edge restorative justice program to reduce suspensions and expulsions and to resolve student conflicts. The business academy is taking over the school store to give students first-hand management experience. The foreign language magnet is going to add a dual-language component so students can take various subjects in Spanish. About $500,000 in grants will enable the school to set up by next year a creative arts academy, with video production and graphic design studios.
Gardena also is among a handful of schools at which every student is issued a laptop. A new instructional program will allow students to earn a certificate in computer technical support.
"This campus is truly a community school, and we're constantly working to get better," Martinez said.
As it happens, she'll have the chance to make her case with Luis Chamol and his mother, Jaqueline. Torrance turned down their permit application, so Luis will be starting the fall at Gardena High.