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Parent involvement at L.A. schools getting new look

An increasing number of community and civil rights groups are reaching out to immigrants to boost activism in education.

December 02, 2013|By Teresa Watanabe and Stephen Ceasar
  • Adelina Garcia, left, and Adriana Serrano walk their kids home from Teresa Hughes Elementary School in Cudahy. The two mothers were leaders in a petition drive to oust the school principal.
Adelina Garcia, left, and Adriana Serrano walk their kids home from Teresa… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)

In Cudahy, parents collected more than 600 signatures demanding a new principal. In Culver City, they fought attempts to unionize classroom aides and formed a group that elected a school board majority.

In Los Angeles, parents are organizing for more effective school disciplinary practices. And hundreds recently flocked to a Sacramento hearing to demand a voice in shaping rules for the state's new school funding plan.

This may well be the new look of parent power. While the PTA and other school-based groups used to be the primary vehicle for parent involvement, a plethora of new organizing models has proliferated — many of them reaching out to immigrants to boost their activism in schools.

"The face of parent involvement is definitely changing in California, as it should, given that 70% of our state's population under age 25 are youth of color," said Mary Lou Fulton, senior program manager at the California Endowment, the state's largest healthcare foundation.

Community and civil rights organizations are supporting much of the parent organizing. Asian Americans Advancing Justice and MALDEF, a Mexican American civil rights organization, are coordinating a network of 16 parent groups to educate families on such problems as school budgets and train them in leadership skills to push for translation services, better nutrition and other matters.

Community groups such as PICO, a faith-based community network, and COFEM, the Consejo de Federaciones Mexicanas en Norteamérica, are expanding into parent organizing as well, Fulton said.

Some parent groups work with teacher unions, while others do not.

In Cudahy, some parents and teachers at Teresa Hughes Elementary are aiming to oust the principal, Elva Cortez-Covarrubias. Rosie Navarro, a campus volunteer who removed her son from the school this year, said parents were concerned about continued low test scores, bullying and an unclean campus. She also said many were distressed by what she called the principal's "intimidation and threats."

Cortez-Covarrubias did not return calls or emails for comment.

Teachers also had concerns — at least six transferred last year and several more intend to do so if the principal is not replaced, said Mario Andrade, the United Teachers Los Angeles representative on campus. He said she was not collaborative and has not provided support to improve teaching.

Parents met with teachers this fall, then launched a petition for new leadership signed by 661 people and recently submitted it to L.A. Unified officials, Navarro and Andrade said.

The 2010 state parent trigger law gave parents the power to demand changes in staff and curriculum, close the school or convert to an independent charter campus. If parents of at least half the students request changes, school boards must comply unless they show cause why they cannot.

But the Cudahy parents chose not to organize under that law — leaving them without its legal leverage to force change.

Navarro said parents had discussed using the trigger law last year — which some had learned about in the news — but "we didn't know anyone to educate us about it."

Parents and teachers were also concerned that using the law for a leadership change would also require all teachers to reapply for their jobs, Navarro said.

But Gabe Rose of Parent Revolution, the L.A. nonprofit that has organized parent trigger campaigns, said the law allows the removal of a principal without forcing out the teaching staff.

Ingrid Villeda of the teachers union said, however, that many instructors view the trigger law as flawed and wanted to support parent efforts without it.

"This is a test case: What will the district do with a petition not formed under the parent trigger law?" Villeda said.

District officials responded quickly with a visit to the campus, where dozens of parents voiced concerns. James Noble, operations administrator for the district's south area schools, said he sent a crew immediately to clean the campus.

But regarding Cortez-Covarrubias, Noble added: "We did not find any complaints that would cause concern."

In Culver City, by contrast, parents clashed with school unions.

In a contentious school board race, candidates backed by United Parents of Culver City, a so-called "parent union" of about 150 members, prevailed over candidates backed by the Culver City Federation of Teachers and garnered a majority on the five-member board.

The parents group formed a political action committee to support favored candidates in the election. The PAC spent about $3,000 on the races.

"If we are going to be a true, spirited member of our community, we had to involve ourselves for real," said Jeannine Wisnosky Stehlin, president of the group. "We're the voice of the kids who have no voice."

The group started last year following a dispute between parents and the district's classified union. A parent-led booster club at El Marino Language School raised funds to pay for about 20 aides to assist students in Spanish and Japanese language immersion lessons.

The classified employees union pushed for the workers to join the union — which would have stretched funding thin and forced the elimination of about half the positions, Stehlin said. The parents prevailed in the dispute.

"It was a magical moment. We had this issue in common, but realized we had so many other issues in common as well," she said.

Charles Kerchner, a professor at Claremont Graduate University who studies labor and education politics, said that it can be damaging for unions to become adversarial with parents.

"When there are disputes between unions and districts," he said, "the side parents align with typically wins."

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

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