Families & the Community

Parents Used ‘Trigger’ Law to Leverage School Changes

By Karla Scoon Reid — March 17, 2015 5 min read
Parent volunteer Maria Garcia kisses her daughter, Vanessa, after helping students in a kindergarten class at Lexington Elementary School in Pomona, Calif. With the help of Parent Revolution, a parent advocacy group, parents at the school negotiated with the administration to address problems.

Lexington Elementary School exhibited many of the classic characteristics of schools that wage parent-trigger campaigns in California.

Revolving-door leadership. Pervasive student bullying. Low student expectations and test scores. Dismal teacher morale.

By the time a local resident called the Los Angeles-based parent-trigger advocacy group Parent Revolution for help in 2013, parent frustration and anger had reached a tipping point.

But parents at the K-12 school never collected a single signature to mount a petition drive under California’s controversial Parent Empowerment Act. They never sought a charter school conversion, either, one of the sweeping structural actions permitted under the law.

Rather, they used the so-called parent-trigger law as leverage. After months of organizing, meeting, and negotiating, the parents, principal, and superintendent signed a memorandum of understanding last May committing to stronger student discipline and improved parent involvement for example. They even marked the occasion with a huge fiesta.

“We were worried that the district didn’t want to work with us,” Maria Garcia, a member of the Pomona Parents and Community Members Union, said in Spanish during a recent conversation at a local Starbucks, where Lexington parents often gather.

Everyone involved in the negotiations agrees that the threat of using options under the parent-trigger was ever-present throughout the discussions about Lexington. The school is located about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, and about 90 percent of the school’s 600 students are Hispanic and come from low-income families.

Today, all parties say they are pleased with the agreement, which included hiring a teacher on special assignment in charge of student discipline, creating three new computer labs, adding extracurricular sports like soccer and basketball, and holding parent education sessions on subjects ranging from nutrition to bullying.

So how did Lexington avoid a full-blown parent-trigger campaign like the one that transformed an Adelanto, Calif., school into a charter, or the divisive petition drive currently underway in Anaheim, Calif.?

The key players involved in Lexington’s negotiations believe it took persistence, a detailed assessment of needs, empowered leadership, and a willingness to accept responsibility for past missteps.

From left, Excellent Educational Solutions team members Jesus Sanchez, Chief Strategy Officer; Alfonso Flores, Founder and CEO; and Angel Garcia, Chief Operations Officer; promote collaboration between parents and school administrators on school improvement.

Pomona Unified School District Superintendent Richard Martinez, who was familiar with California’s drama-filled parent-trigger campaigns, said he was determined to take a different route.

“You’ve got to let that [parent] frustration and anger come out,” Mr. Martinez said during a recent interview in the school principal’s office. “That’s something you as a leader ... get paid to do, to take a few of those hits—sometimes a lot of those hits.”

Honest Conversations

That’s not to say that Lexington’s “nontrigger” campaign was easy. During the early stages of the process, the school’s principal left for a position with another district. Over a six-year period Lexington has had five principals.

Compounding the school’s longstanding troubles was the city of Pomona itself. Pomona, where almost a third of residents live below the poverty line, has been grappling with violent crime for years. In January 2014, a man was shot in the park adjacent to Lexington’s heavily gated campus just as students were being dismissed for the day. The school’s principal and security officer ran to the man’s aid while ordering a school lockdown.

“It was very hostile at the school,” Silvestre Maravilla, Lexington’s principal said.

Mr. Maravilla, who had been the principal of a Pomona middle school, was hired to take over Lexington in December 2013. Back then, he recalled, “Teachers would sit in their cars in the parking lot waiting for the first bell to ring in the morning. ... People didn’t want to be here.”

Initially, district officials weren’t keen on Parent Revolution’s presence in Pomona either, and tried to “blow us off,” said Jesus Sanchez, who was then Parent Revolution’s lead organizer in Pomona. But Mr. Sanchez, who is now the chief strategy officer for the private consulting firm Excellent Educational Solutions, said eventually district and school leaders were “brave enough to have honest conversations” with parents.

Once negotiations began in earnest in December 2013, the principal and superintendent attended every meeting with parent union members. For the next 17 hours of meetings, they listened and took copious notes as parents—who had carefully crafted their arguments with Mr. Sanchez’s assistance—detailed their concerns. Then Mr. Maravilla drafted a strategy to tackle Lexington’s challenges.

A Phoenix Rises

A native of East Los Angeles, a predominantly low-income and Hispanic neighborhood, Mr. Maravilla said he relates to Lexington’s parents, which made it easier to find common ground.

“[The parents] were really disenfranchised,” he said. “They had every right to be upset.”

One of Lexington’s challenges also involved dismantling an unsanctioned parent-teacher organization chapter on campus, which parents and teachers say heightened tension at the school. Mr. Maravilla said the school hopes to start a PTA chapter in its place.

Veteran 6th grade teacher Michael Mitchell admits some staff members initially were concerned about individual teachers and parents being singled out and criticized. But he said once it was clear that most people involved in the discussions were genuinely trying to serve students, the school community relaxed.

“The [parents] were like the phoenix that rose out of the ashes,” he said.

Lexington always had some good teachers, but a few “didn’t do or couldn’t do all they could do to help students,” parent Liliana Martinez said in Spanish, through a translator. The mother of two Lexington students said she talked with her daughter’s teacher about getting her better prepared for high school last school year, but there was no support outside the classroom.

For his part, Mr. Maravilla evaluated every Lexington teacher and had the superintendent’s support to remove two teachers from their positions. Other teachers received additional support or changed grade levels, which he said has boosted their confidence.

To encourage team-building, Mr. Maravilla said the office is always stocked with coffee and snacks, and on Fridays, Lexington teachers are encouraged to wear their school T-shirts.

“[Mr. Maravilla] has created an environment where teachers and parents are working together,” Ms. Garcia said.

During a recent potluck meal with parents for an English-learner advisory committee meeting, Mr. Maravilla recalls joking with parents: “Remember how much you used to hate me?”

“We can laugh about it now,” he said, smiling broadly. Then he added: “In the end, we all wanted what was best for the kids.”

Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as Statute Provided Leverage For Once-Sidelined Parents

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Educator-Driven EdTech Design: Help Shape the Future of Classroom Technology
Join us for a collaborative workshop where you will get a live demo of GoGuardian Teacher, including seamless new integrations with Google Classroom, and participate in an interactive design exercise building a feature based on
Content provided by GoGuardian
School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: What Did We Learn About Schooling Models This Year?
After a year of living with the pandemic, what schooling models might we turn to as we look ahead to improve the student learning experience? Could year-round schooling be one of them? What about online
School & District Management Webinar What's Ahead for Hybrid Learning: Putting Best Practices in Motion
It’s safe to say hybrid learning—a mix of in-person and remote instruction that evolved quickly during the pandemic—is probably here to stay in K-12 education to some extent. That is the case even though increasing

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Families & the Community Photos PHOTOS: Schools as COVID-19 Vaccination Clinics
A look at how and where school districts are using their facilities to host Covid-19 vaccination clinics.
Education Week Photo Staff
1 min read
Vaccine recipients meet with shot givers at the Anchorage School District headquarters. The Anchorage School District headquarters hosted a COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Anchorage, Alaska, on February 3, 2021.
Vaccine recipients meet with shot givers at the Anchorage School District headquarters. The Anchorage School District headquarters hosted a COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Anchorage, Alaska, on February 3, 2021.
Marc Lester/for Education Week
Families & the Community Audio A Storm, Power Outages, and a Pandemic: Texas Educators and Families Describe a School Year Upended
On top of the deadly pandemic, millions of people in Texas lost heat and water for days after a winter storm. Hear how families and educators coped.
2 min read
Jack Fitzgerald, 14, an 8th grader at Hogg Middle School in Houston, Texas, plays Rocket League at home this week when school was cancelled because of icy weather and widespread power outages. Jack's family had to stay with friends briefly when their home lost power and indoor temperatures plunged.
Jack Fitzgerald, 14, an 8th grader at Hogg Middle School in Houston, Texas, plays Rocket League at home this week when school was cancelled because of icy weather and widespread power outages. Jack's family had to stay with friends briefly when their home lost power and indoor temperatures plunged.
Courtesy of Ginny Goldman
Families & the Community Leader To Learn From Relying on Community Values: How One School Leader Advocates for Vulnerable Families
Carissa Purnell’s work at the Family Resource Centers in Salinas, Calif., is a lifeline for families, many of them migrant farm workers.
7 min read
Carissa Purnell, director of the Family Resource Centers for the Alisal Union School District in Salinas, Calif.
Carissa Purnell, director of the Family Resource Centers for Alisal Union School District in Salinas, Calif., provides essential services and critical information to vulnerable families.
Nic Coury for Education Week
Families & the Community Leader To Learn From Driving Academic Improvement by Empowering Parents
Central to turning around public education in Detroit is reengaging the parents who had been largely cut out of the district.
10 min read
Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools, and Sharlonda Buckman, assistant superintendent of family and community engagement, have made parental engagement a key part of their turnaround strategy.
Nikolai Vitti and Sharlonda Buckman of Detroit Public Schools in Detroit, Mich.
Brittany Greeson for Education Week