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Parents find new use for trigger law

August 23, 2013|Teresa Watanabe
  • Mirna Saucedo Hernandez of the parents union of Lennox Middle School applauds during a news conference. Parents used the prospect of the trigger law to persuade administrators to work on sweeping changes at the low-performing campus.
Mirna Saucedo Hernandez of the parents union of Lennox Middle School applauds… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

On the first Thursday of the new school year at Lennox Middle School, the changes were palpable at this low-performing campus near Los Angeles International Airport.

Students deprived of elective classes last year are now exposed to dance, music and film. Those struggling with English are now taking social studies and science -- courses denied to them last year to make room for extra help in language arts. Concerns over safety have been addressed by new security staff.

And parents who said their concerns had long been ignored by previous administrators were gathered with the school's new principal and district superintendent to celebrate their success in working together for the changes. Nearly all of the 1,680 students are low-income and more than one-third are not fluent in English; they have steadily improved their reading and math standardized test scores but more than half are still not at grade level in either subject.

"In the past, our concerns fell on deaf ears," said Shannon Thomas-Allen, whose daughter, Sherrie Thomas, is an eighth-grader. "Now, we have a voice."

The difference, Thomas-Allen said, was the state's pioneering parent trigger law, which allows parents to petition to overhaul low-performing schools by changing staff, closing campuses or converting to an independent, publicly funded charter. Frustrated by their failure to be heard, Lennox parents reached out two years ago to Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles nonprofit that lobbied for the law and has assisted petition campaigns in other cities.

But marking a new front for the controversial law -- which has been blamed for sowing campus turmoil and discord -- the Lennox parents achieved their goals without launching a petition campaign. Instead, they worked with administrators and teachers in an assessment of campus needs and jointly crafted a three-year plan to address parent concerns.

"We considered a trigger campaign and used that as leverage," Thomas-Allen said. "But we wanted to actually collaborate with teachers and administrators."

Lennox Supt. Barbara Flores said parents approached her just after she was hired last year and raised the issue of a trigger campaign. But Flores said she negotiated for more time, telling them that she would ask the school board to authorize an assessment of campus needs and use that to build a plan for change. The board -- and parents -- agreed.

Brian Guerrero, the teachers union representative at Lennox, said the faculty generally supported the changes but remained leery about Parent Revolution's history with controversial petition campaigns and charter conversions. They were prepared to resist a trigger campaign, he said, but embraced parent overtures to work together for change instead.

"It was very tense for a while," he said. "But we decided that working together was in everyone's interest."

Guerrero said the experience, however, was a "wake-up call" to teachers to "listen better" to parents and forge closer relationships with them.

Gabe Rose, Parent Revolution's deputy director, said the Lennox case illustrates yet another way that parents can use the trigger law to promote change.

In the Mojave Desert community of Adelanto, parents chose to convert Desert Trails Elementary to a charter school.

At 24th Street Elementary, parents chose a hybrid model of a charter school and L.A. Unified operating different grades.

At Weigand Avenue Elementary, parents replaced the principal -- prompting 21 of 22 teachers to ask for transfers in protest of that action.

"There are many diverse ways parent power and organization can lead to changes in schools and improve outcomes for kids," Rose said.

At the morning celebration Thursday, parents clapped and cheered as Principal Yesenia Alvarez explained the plan's five changes: more elective classes; better security; parent training; more history and science for those weak in English; and exposure to colleges.

The changes announced did not include teacher training -- a need identified in the school assessment, which found a lack of high expectations and academic rigor.

But some teachers say that the culprit was top-down directives on how to teach, and that new administrative leadership has freed them to launch more effective lessons.

"It's a whole new beginning," Thomas-Allen said.


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