Related coverage: Read more coverage of the parent trigger school movement in Southern California


Amabilia Villeda had no idea her daughter couldn't read.

It wasn't until the girl had moved on from the 24th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles that the Spanish-speaking mother of three was told her sixth-grader was reading at below the first-grade level.

Now, in eighth grade, she reads at a third-grade level. Her son, a third-grader, also has fallen behind.

"You can't talk to the principal," Villeda said through a translator. "(I) tried to talk to the teachers (at 24th Street), but there was no result."

Villeda is one of a group of parents working with the Los Angeles-based Parent Revolution, the advocacy group that helped pass the state's "parent trigger" law in 2010. The law allows parents who gather enough signatures - equal to 50 percent or more of the families enrolled - to force dramatic changes on how a failing school is run.

The group has helped parents pull the trigger twice before - the efforts failing in Compton and succeeding in the High Desert city of Adelanto.

Their third try at 24th Elementary School looks likely to succeed. The petition, which was turned into L.A. Unified on Jan. 17, demands the district improve academic standards, provide better leadership at the school and provide better and safer facilities for students.

Located southwest of downtown Los Angeles in the West Adams District, 24th Street Elementary received a 667 Academic Performance Index score in 2012, up 6 points from the year before. The score, derived from multiple statewide tests, ranges from 200 to 1,000, with 800 as the target number for schools statewide.

The school faces additional challenges. Every one of the 357 students whose test scores were used to create the 2012 API ranking are socioeconomically disadvantaged, according to the California Department of Education.

Almost 200 of them don't speak English as their native language. Despite being an elementary school, it has the second-highest suspension rate in the school district, according to Gabe Rose, the deputy director of Parent Revolution.

"Academically, it's a disaster," he said. "Culturally, it's a disaster."

The district was "very receptive" to the parent union, according to Rose.

The 24th Street Elementary School Parent Union has received eight letters of interest from groups wanting a chance to reform the school. Six are from established charter schools, one is from a retired 24th Street teacher and one is from L.A. Unified itself.

"(I) hope the district is not just giving promises," Villeda said. "They should be ashamed that this school has been so low-performing for so many years and they haven't done anything to improve it."

Full proposals from the eight suitors are due March 8, and the 24th Street Elementary School Parent Union is expected to choose a proposal by the end of March.

Villeda hopes to "see a complete change in administration, from the principal's office to the office staff, and (I) want the teachers to be evaluated, to see if they should be in the classroom teaching."

The success that the 24th Street Elementary School Parent Union has met with is at least partially the result of its first two parent trigger attempts.

In 2011, the group tried to use the law at Compton's McKinley Elementary School, whose 2012 API score was 723, up 6 points from the year before.

"We did a lot of things wrong," said Ben Austin, the executive director of Parent Revolution and a former Los Angeles deputy mayor.

Among their mistakes: "We did most of the work. We were the ones who chose the school, we were the ones who gathered the signatures, we were the ones that chose the charter."

Austin said parent trigger opponents threatened to call immigration services to investigate supporters and some teachers would preach against the effort in the classroom.

"One of the kids came home to the (lead) parents and said 'Mom, I hate you,'" Austin said. "We just weren't prepared for that."

Ultimately, the McKinley Elementary parent trigger group's petition was rejected by the Compton Unified school board, which said the petition failed to have information required under the 2010 law. 

"Mistakes are just baked into the cake," Austin said. "We know mistakes are going to happen."

Parents in the High Desert saw the reports of what was happening in Compton and reached out for help. At Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, three-quarters of the students are unable to read or write, according to state test scores. (Desert Trails received a 699 API score in 2012, down 13 points from the year before.)

But even going with a more grass-roots model than in Compton, things didn't go smoothly.

The Desert Trails Parent Union faced six months of court battles after turning in their signatures in January 2012. The Adelanto Elementary School District challenged many of the 466 signatures submitted; officials claimed the parent union had failed to gather signatures from 50 percent or more of enrolled students.

The case eventually made its way to San Bernardino Superior Court, where a judge ruled in July that the district's efforts to rescind signatures weren't legal under the parent trigger law and that the group had met the 50 percent-or-better benchmark.

"We've definitely internalized (needing) to have the parent core solid before going forward," said Christina Sanchez, organizing director for Parent Revolution.

The Adelanto parents' legal battles established precedents about the previously untested law, so far eliminating those fights this time, according to Austin.

"Compton proved this law is (for real) and Adelanto proves this law works even in the face of a determined opposition," he said. "I think 24th Street is proving it doesn't always have to be a fight."

Not everyone is a fan of the parent trigger process.

"We believe parents do not want a private charter corporation to take over 24th Street Elementary, which is exactly what is happening at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto as a result of parent trigger," United Teachers Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher is quoted as saying in a Jan. 17 news release.

"There is a better way and UTLA will work with parents, teachers and LAUSD to ensure students at 24th Street Elementary get the quality education every student deserves."

Parent Revolution is funded by major education reform groups, including the Bill & Melinda Gates and Walton Family foundations. But it's not, as it's sometimes been accused of being, solely dedicated to advancing the cause of charter schools, according to its chief executive.

"We're pro-charter schools as long as the charters are good schools," said Austin, the father of a kindergartener at an LAUSD school. "Bad charter schools are just as bad as bad district schools." In Adelanto, the school district had rejected a hybrid "partnership schools" model where the district would work with parents to reform the school.

"It's just about giving parents a seat at the table," Austin said. "Parents need a third seat" alongside teachers and administrators.

The Desert Trails parents went on to select a Hesperia charter school to take over their elementary school. Desert Trails Preparatory Academy is expected to open in August.

The rapid progress at 24th Street sets up a scenario where not one but two parent trigger schools could open their doors in time for the new school year, putting to the test the idea that parents can turn around a failing public school.

"I think our expectation is that things will get better," Austin said. "It's going to be a difficult, hard-won progress."


Reach Beau at via email, call him at 909-483-9376, or find him on Twitter @InlandED.