Parent power – a new education paradigm taking hold

Historically, parent involvement has been limited to bake sales and volunteer days. With the Parent Empowerment law, for the first time, parents, educators, administrators and communities are seeing the impact that real parent power can have. What has surprised many of us is the speed at which this movement has scaled from a radical new idea into a reality for parents and children in trapped in failing schools across California.

Since the law passed in California three years ago, it has captured the attention and imagination of a bipartisan community of legislators, reformers and parents. More than 20 states have introduced some version of the parent empowerment law and seven have passed a version of it. For the 2013-2014 school year, four California schools will reopen transformed by a process in which parents have either invoked the so-called “parent trigger” or simply used it as leverage to work with educators and administrators to bring about positive changes or to solve previously intractable problems.

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In the desert community of Adelanto, California, the Desert Trails Preparatory Academy opened in July. The Academy is a high performing, non-profit charter school that was selected by Desert Trails' parents as a replacement for their children’s previous, chronically failing elementary school, which scored 699 on California’s API ranking. After researching options, the parents selected Laverne Elementary Prep to transform Desert Trails, which scored a 911 API ranking, serving a similar population of low income kids.  In addition to the transformed school, Desert Trails families will also have access to a whole new array of wrap-around services including family counseling and community resources, such as a clothes closet, food bank, tutoring services and more, all made possible through the this newly transformed school. On the first day of school, as parents and children toured the new classrooms and learned of the plans, goals and expectations for the school year, many shed tears of joy.

Other parent groups took different approaches.  The parents at 24th Street Elementary School had been working since 2011 to turn around their failing school, but had never gotten the district to make changes.  So their parent union chapter voted to initiate a parent trigger campaign.  The parents used their power to engineer an unprecedented partnership between the LAUSD and a high quality non-profit charter school to work together to turn around their school and add a middle school on the same campus.  The parent union chapter also demanded and received universal preschool as part of their deal.  When the school reopens on August 13th, the district will run preschool through 4th grade, and the charter school will run 5-8 grade.  This is the first time in LAUSD history that a charter and a district will have worked together to serve the same kids in the same attendance boundary on the same campus to turn around a failing school.  It took parents having power to make it happen.

Another LAUSD parent power School is Weigand Elementary, which is ranked among the worst elementary schools in the LAUSD (486th out of almost 500).  The parents at Weigand did not want a charter, they didn't want to make any structural changes to their traditional district school, they just wanted new leadership, since the previous principal had been unable to improve things over several years. When they open in August, they will open to new leadership and mostly new staff.

The parents of Haddon Elementary have been organizing for two years to make changes at their school.  This year their parent union ran a parent trigger campaign, but as they were organizing, the teachers started meeting to make changes to their contract.  When that happened, the parents paused their campaign to see if the teachers negotiated changes that the parents could support, which is ultimately what happened.  Last week, the parent union officially ended their parent trigger campaign (mailed back the petitions to the signatories) because the parent union supported the changes the teachers made to their contract for the upcoming school year.

Each of these schools has embraced a totally different model and a different theory of change, but all share one common trait:  they are the result of parents having power.  Because the parent power movement inherently embraces a bottom-up rather than top-down theory of change, one that is accountable to no special interests other than that of serving kids, it is bringing about rapid, transformational changes that we could have only dreamed about a few short years ago.

It hasn’t been without strife. There are powerful forces that oppose change of any kind. Some (incorrectly) view parent power as a zero sum game.  If parents are gaining power, then someone else must be losing power. In Desert Trails, it took two California Superior Court decisions in favor of the parent efforts to force the school district to comply with the law.

Defenders of the status quo often try to paint the parent power movement as a pro-charter conspiracy. Others have denigrated the idea that parents of kids stuck in failing schools, many of whom include low-income or immigrant families, can make smart choices for their kids. But let’s face facts. What parents would chose to put their children in a failing school?  Parents spanning racial, ethnic and socio-economic boundaries are united behind the concept of a kids-first agenda where every decision they make is motivated by what is best for their children. This movement is taking off because it doesn’t embrace any single top-down cookie cutter model. Each school looks different because each school faces different challenges.  What unites them is the North Star of a kids-first agenda. These four schools collectively represent a mosaic of kid-first change that parents all across California and America will be following and potentially replicating.

Perhaps Desert Trails parent Cynthia Ramirez, who has two children attending the Desert Trails Preparatory Academy this year, said it best when she entered the building with other parents on the first day of school, some of whom supported the original petition and some who didn’t.  She said:  “We now have something in common: a better school for our children.”

Austin is the executive director of Los Angeles-based Parent Revolution.

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