California parents test ability to organize for school change

Parent activist Esmeralda Medina cruised her Pacoima neighborhood this week, spied a mom sitting outside with kids and advanced. What is one thing you’d like to change about your school? she asked.

Maybe, Veronica Perez replied, more tutoring programs for her third-grader, who needs help with writing.

Medina closed in. She invited Perez to a parent meeting to push for better schools. Perez said she might attend. “Whatever helps, I’m all for it,” she said.

One week after the state Board of Education approved final rules on how parents can use a landmark new law to demand sweeping changes at their low-performing schools, parents say the hardest work lies ahead. They must organize themselves, one by one, to push for changes on their children’s campuses.


Medina’s door-to-door canvassing was part of a two-day tour showcasing new parent organizing groups forming across the state. The tour, which wrapped up Wednesday, was sponsored by Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles-based educational reform group that helped push the “Parent Trigger” law. That law gives parents unprecedented power to petition for schools to close, force changes in staff and curriculum, or convert to independently run, publicly financed charter campuses.

Parent Revolution launched the state’s first petition campaign in Compton last year, but was criticized for commandeering the process by gathering most signatures and pre-selecting the charter school for parents. After reflecting on the Compton effort — which remains tied up in legal challenges — the group decided on a new strategy. Parents will form chapters of an affiliated organization, Parent Union, to develop their own leadership, identify their own concerns and lobby for their own solutions at their schools.

The group identified 120 schools with low academic performance and little or no improvement and sent six organizers into the communities to meet parents interested in change. So far, nine chapters have formed. Parent Revolution will offer training, policy ideas and other support. And chapters must pledge to put the interests of children first — taking on ineffective teachers even at the risk of alienating them, for instance, according to Ben Austin, the group’s executive director.

“The focus will be up to them,” Austin said. “They can stay small and advocate for marginal change or organize a petition drive to trigger major change.”

He added that charter schools will not be a panacea, since, he said, there aren’t enough good ones willing to take on failing campuses.

But it’s not easy to organize parents outside of school, he and others said. Many work and are not connected to each other as employees at a workplace might be, according to Pat DeTemple, Parent Revolution’s director of organizing. In one door-to-door canvassing operation, he said, only one home in eight yielded a parent with school-age children. And many new immigrants are unfamiliar with the issues; one, for example, said she did not understand her son’s state standardized test report so she did not know how he was doing in reading and math.

Still, parents in five communities Tuesday pledged to work for needed change.

In South Los Angeles, parents have formed a new Parent Union chapter at Woodcrest Elementary, where three-fourths of students are not proficient in math or English. Parents complained that unprepared children are passed to the next grade while gifted ones have no appropriate program. The Woodcrest principal did not return a call seeking comment.


Other parents in Los Angeles, Pasadena and Pacoima fretted over low test scores, indifferent teachers, abrupt staff reassignments, even rats in the cafeteria. At a parent rally in Lynwood, Alma Alvarado said her fourth-grade daughter still cannot read.

But all expressed hope that the Parent Trigger law would give them leverage to lobby for better schools.

“As parents, we have to get more interested and involved with what’s going on with our kids’ education,” said Medina, whose children attend Haddon Elementary School and Pacoima Middle School in Pacoima. “If we’re not consistent, we won’t get what we need.”