A revolution in the schools

A controversial movement to increase parental authority over public education is quickly gaining traction in Pasadena.

A parent group recently forced a change in the principal’s office at Jefferson Elementary School, and organizers are now setting their sights on John Muir High School.

At Jefferson, where enrollment last year was more than 85% Latino, a group of Spanish-speaking mothers long at odds with school administrators has organized under the banner of Parent Revolution, advocates of California’s “parent trigger” law.

Under the law, if a majority of parents whose children attend an underperforming public school file a petition, they can impose drastic changes ranging from replacing teachers or administrators to converting campuses to charter schools.

Maribel Sanchez, a mother of three Jefferson students and a Parent Revolution member, was among those seeking change at Jefferson.

Sanchez and more than a dozen other parents, many of them school volunteers, began calling in early 2010 for the removal of Jefferson Principal Hoori Chalian. They said children received inadequate supervision during lunch and did not have enough time to eat, and were forced to use dirty bathrooms — but most of all contended that Chalian ignored their concerns.

At Jefferson, Sanchez said, “They weren’t listening to us.”

School district officials hired a conflict mediator and held a parent retreat, but the group continued to press. An organizer with Parent Revolution approached the mothers in May about starting a local chapter of the group.

On July 27, Chalian, who also faced a teachers union no-confidence vote last year, asked to be transferred to another school, according to the district. She did not return calls seeking comment.

But Pasadena Unified Board President Renatta Cooper said district officials deemed each of the group’s complaints unfounded or resolved.

“I believe in cultural sensitivity, and that’s a huge part of what went wrong here,” she said. “But you don’t fire a principal because you think lunch is too short or you don’t like where the trash cans are. You can’t fire a principal because you don’t like her and think she’s not personable enough. The school has improved academically since she’s been there, and that was what she was sent there to do.”

Claiming victory, Parent Revolution held a meeting at Jackie Robinson Center two days after Chalian’s request was made public. The focus was an effort to organize John Muir High School parents.

Neither Jefferson nor Muir is eligible for parent trigger takeover. But they could be subject to petitions as early as next year if standardized test scores don’t improve.

“There is an undercurrent that’s spreading,” said Pasadena Unified Board of Education member Ramon Miramontes, the board’s sole Latino and its only public supporter of the Jefferson parents group.

“My colleagues on the board are very progressive folks, but something about Pasadena is very provincial. They seem to be ignoring this population not because they want to, but because they don’t understand them,” Miramontes said.

Pasadena Unified board member Ed Honowitz described Parent Revolution as a double-edged sword. It encourages parent involvement in public schools, but also threatens to rip responsibility away from educators and elected officials from whom the public is demanding accountability.

“You have a political organization doing an effective sales job,” Horowitz said. “Is education really about free-market forces coming to battle it out for taxpayer money?”

Sanchez said group members have discussed the charter school option for Jefferson, but only briefly. She’s more concerned whether Jefferson’s next principal will communicate better with parents — in Spanish, if possible.

“I don’t see charter schools as boogeymen,” Miramontes said. “If charter schools are behind this, so be it. It doesn’t negate [the fact] that parents are disenfranchised.”

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