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The Battle Over Charter Schools

Meet the parents behind the nation's first "parent-trigger" school experiment in Compton.

| Thu Apr. 7, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

McKinley Elementary SchoolMcKinley Elementary SchoolAs I approach McKinley Elementary School, Pastor Lee Finnie introduces me to his oldest son Josiah, a sweet second-grader who was recently diagnosed with a high-functioning version of autism. Finnie has become a de facto leader of what he believes is a sizable opposition to the "parent trigger" law in Compton. "We just don't like to have outsiders come in here and give us only one charter school as an option," Finnie tells me in McKinley's PTA room. Mostly he's upset with the way the process was handled. Why didn't Parent Revolution have a public meeting where they clearly explained the rights of the parents? Or allow public questions? "Are lunches free at Celerity? Do they have a school that serves the same demographics and succeeds? How do they work with special needs students?" Finnie wonders aloud. These are the kinds of things he thinks maybe his neighbors didn't ask the canvassers before picking up a pen to sign the petition.

09-10 School Year McKinley Celerity
API Test Scores 684 836 782
State Rank (10 highest) 1 5 4
African-American 34% 11% 63%
Latino 56% 89% 37%
Pacific Islander 0.70% - -
Filipino 0.20% - -
White 0.20% - 0.20%
English Learners 45% 62% 16.30%
Special Education 10% 5.20% 3.70%
Low-income 80% 100% 100%
*Sources: Calif. Dept. of Education, SARC

He didn't think to ask these questions either when he transferred Josiah to the Barack Obama Charter School near Compton, which turned out not to be set up to work with special needs students. Josiah was there for five months before he got "kicked out for behavioral issues." And test scores at Obama charter were lower than McKinley's in 2010.

Is McKinley a great school? Not really, Finnie says. "To tell you the truth, some teachers have been nicer since the petition. But it's not like we are not coming out of the ditch by ourselves," he explains. Things have been improving at McKinley for the past two years, he says. He's not opposed to charters or parent empowerment, but he wants an open discussion in the community, led by parents, not Parent Revolution. Finnie insists that many parents who signed the petition didn't fully understand what they were signing, or realize that teachers and the principal would be fired when Celerity comes in. He says some parents told him they thought they were agreeing to "beautify" the school, or signed the petition just to get the canvassers to go away.

Finnie, like most opponents of Parent Revolution I talked to, also doubts that Parent Revolution organizers gathered 51 percent of signatures from actual parents. But when I asked him and a few McKinley teachers to put me in touch with parents who felt duped, they weren't able to do so. Finnie thinks the fight has become so divisive that parents are now afraid of talking to outsiders about it at all. "They don't want to fan any more flames," he says.

Compton Unified School District didn't respond to numerous requests to connect me with McKinley teachers. After school hours, I found a few teachers willing to talk on record, and they share Finnie's sentiments. Regina Powell, who teaches first grade at McKinley, says she is not against charters. "My son, who is in the 12th grade, goes to a public charter. It's the sneaky Parent Revolution process that I don't like." David Gilmer, who teaches third grade, agrees. "I don't like this top-down, authoritarian process. This is America, and we believe in choice and informed decisions."

Gilmer notes that McKinley has already been making progress. Thanks to a state improvement program, teachers now have group meetings every week where they come together to look at grades, test scores, and adjust strategy collectively.

"If you look at grades—not test scores—what you'll see is that students who are not proficient are moving along," says McKinley Principal Fleming Robinson, while Ron Suazo, the district's communications official, sits next to him. "While they haven't reached proficiency yet, they are improving," he explains.

What about the health of McKinley's school culture and relationships between teachers and parents? I ask Robinson. About average, he reflects. "Sometimes, the first time parents hear from a teacher is when the child is struggling," he tells me. "That's not the best way to start a dialogue."

Powell, Gilmer, and teachers who didn't want to talk on record believe that the current "parent-trigger" process is not open and transparent, and it harms the community. Most teachers know which parents signed the petition, Powell explains, and now some teachers are less engaged with their kids in the classroom. Gilmer often talks to parents on the streets about their kids if he sees them. "That's now over with the parents who signed the petitionm" he says. "They don't say hello, and they avoid me."

Gilmer is also worried about the long-term impact on racial tensions. Although Compton is still often thought of as a primarily black community, Latinos are now the largest ethnic group in the city and most of Compton schools. With these changes have come tensions that often emerge as groups redefine relationships and power. African Americans continue to dominate local politics and the Compton school board. There has never been a Latino on the city council, and there are no Latinos on the current school board. LA Weekly's Patrick McDonald reports that out of 15 early McKinley Parent for Change organizers, only one was African American. Linda Serrato with Parent Revolution says that's changed and is now more in line with city demographics.

There have been numerous accusations of harassment and intimidation tactics on both sides. The PTA complained that canvassers petitioned parents aggressively even after parents declined to sign. McKinley Parents for Change also claimed deportation threats from charter opponents and accused McKinley teachers of badmouthing petition supporters in front of their children at school. The California Board of Education has urged attorney general to investigate the accusations. Finnie and the teachers I spoke with all agreed that the best way to avoid community wars is to have an open, public process where all sides can be heard and everyone has a chance to make their case. "When an outside entity comes in like that, it sparks fire. It divided and conquered us," Finnie said.

When we talk about the negative impact of this process on the community, Austin offers, "I don't have any regrets, but it's an ugly situation. This law has never been tried before, and we are going to do this better next time. Moving forward, it's going to be a slower, more organic process."

I called Pastor Finnie a few days ago to ask what he'd like to see happen now, while the future of this law and of McKinley are being debated by the lawyers, judges, and the Compton District officials. "We will be raising our children here together for the next 10 years, and we have to find a way to cooperate and live together," he answers. "I would be very open to sitting down with McKinley Parents for Change, and figure out a way to move forward, and let the healing in the community begin."

Velasquez tells me it doesn't make sense to have a community forum until the Compton Unified follows the court orders and verifies the signatures on the petition. Without that, it's hard to have a meaningful conversation based in facts, she says. Amie is graduating from McKinley this year, but Velasquez will continue her work with McKinley Parents for Change: "Even though Amie won't be at McKinley next year, I'm doing this for my community. I want children in this community to have a better school experience than Amie and I did."

*[Correction: This article originally stated that Parent Revolution is working on 15 parent-trigger campaigns. The organization clarifies that they are working on school reform campaigns with parents in dozens of schools, but it is not yet clear how many of these parents may end up using the "parent trigger" law to implement change.]

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