Calif. Parents Pull Trigger On Public School

This week, parents of children attending a failing school in Compton, Calif., submitted a petition to district officials demanding that the public school be taken over by a charter school company. A new law in California allows parents to attempt such takeovers. This is the first time the law has been invoked. The only other state with a similar law is Connecticut, but other states are considering similar legislation. From member station KQED, Krissy Clark reports.

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This week, a group of fed-up parents in Southern California moved to shut down their local public elementary school. A new so-called parent-trigger law in the state says that if a majority of a school's parents sign a petition, they can force changes in failing schools. Krissy Clark of member station KQED has this report.

KRISSY CLARK: Ismenia Guzman walked up to the office of the Compton Unified School District holding a thick binder. Inside were 269 signatures of parents demanding a charter school company take over McKinley Elementary. Guzman's hands shook as she handed the binder over.

Ms. ISMENIA GUZMAN: And this is our petition of us parents that really care for our kids' education.

Ms. KAREN FRISON (Compton Unified School District): Yeah. Well, we all care for our kids' education.

CLARK: And with that pointed response, the school district's Karen Frison took the petition. It was a brief exchange, but one that pushes school reform in to unknown, divisive territory. Connecticut has its own trigger law, and six other states are considering a similar measure.

(Soundbite of applause)

CLARK: These parents in Compton are the first to invoke the law. As they celebrated their historic step, Guzman explained that she's afraid her daughter's getting a shoddy education at McKinley. It ranks in the lowest 10 percent of California schools, in a district where less than half the students graduate from high school.

Ms. GUZMAN: They don't challenge the kids to go any further than what they have to. Like charter schools, they challenge the kids the most.

CLARK: Also at the rally was Shamika Murphy. She has a daughter who just graduated from McKinley with high marks - only to get Cs and Ds in middle school. And Murphy says her second-grader is way behind in reading.

Ms. SHAMIKA MURPHY: I think that this will be something that helps. Something has to be better.

CLARK: McKinley parents say they never would have known they could demand a charter school takeover if it weren't for a guy named Ben Austin.

Mr. BEN AUSTIN (Parent Revolution): The only way we're going to change things is for parents to take back power over the education of their own kids.

CLARK: Austin doesn't live in Compton, but he runs a non-profit called Parent Revolution that's been organizing here. It's a spin-off from Green Dot, a national charter school company. Austin's group lobbied for the parent trigger law that went into effect earlier this year. Then his paid staff went door to door, looking for fed-up parents ready to sign a petition.

Ms. KARLA GARCIA: The first time they came to me they said it was to improve the school, so I signed the petition.

CLARK: Karla Garcia was trying to get her name off the petition before parents loaded onto a bus to deliver it to the school district. She said she thought her signature was for upgrades like new grass by the playground.

Ms. GARCIA: But then I find out it was for a charter school, which I didn't like it. And I'm more confused now, so I don't know what to do.

CLARK: Organizers at Parent Revolution say they made it clear what the petition was for, and they claim school staff have been using scare tactics on parents who signed.

Confusion over the petition was still echoing at a PTA meeting a few days later at McKinley.

Unidentified Woman: The only thing I want is that you guys really know what you signed, OK?

CLARK: At the back of the room, some parents signed a new petition to recant the first. By the end of the night it had more than 50 names - nearly enough to un-pull the trigger on the parent trigger law. After the meeting, McKinley's principal, Fleming Robinson, looked exhausted.

Mr. FLEMING ROBINSON (Principal, McKinley Elementary): We all as a community want our school to be great, and that's why we were brought to this point. But as an educational leader, I believe it's my goal to achieve that, and I think we can achieve it here at McKinley.

CLARK: In fact, during Fleming's leadership of the last two years, test scores have actually made steady, significant gains. But not fast enough for those who want to turn the school over to a charter company. It's hard to wait for a school to get better while your child falls behind. The real question, though, might not be when to pull the trigger, but figuring out where to aim.

For NPR News, I'm Krissy Clark.

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