How A Parent Revolt Sparked A Turnaround At This LAUSD School

A parent snaps a photo during L.A.'s 20th Street Elementary School's fifth grade "culmination" ceremony for students leaving for middle school on Jun. 7, 2018. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

Four years ago, as Mario Garcielita took his new job at 20th Street Elementary School, the new principal made a promise: "We're going to get this ship going in the right direction."

At the time, a group of parents with a wide range of concerns — united in their belief that L.A. Unified School District officials were failing at 20th Street — had turned to a controversial remedy: California's "parent trigger" law.

The law allows parents at an "underperforming" school to force huge changes — like closing the school, converting it into a charter or replacing the staff — if they gather enough petition signatures.

By the time Garcielita took over in 2015, parents at 20th Street had already mounted one "trigger" campaign. By the end of his first year, they'd mount another.

But Garcielita kept his calm — and tried to be reassuring.

"It just takes time," Garcielita recalled saying. "Education is a slow process."

Four years later, most measures show the school is now going in the right direction. 20th Street Elementary's standardized test scores in both English and math now rank among the most-improved in LAUSD since 2015.

"Now, we have some momentum growing," Garcielita said in a 2018 interview, after the last round of test scores came out. (Another round of results is due out early in this new school year.)

So how did 20th Street Elementary pull this off?

Data from the California Department of Education, Smarter Balanced Assessments, 2015-2018 (KPCC/LAist chart)

20TH STREET & THE PARENT TRIGGER LEGACY

Most observers say the improvement stems from a compromise LAUSD reached with the dissatisfied parents in 2016.

Under the deal, the parents agreed to drop their effort to wrest control of 20th Street from LAUSD and convert it to a charter school. In exchange, LAUSD agreed to bring in a new day-to-day operator for 20th Street: an organization called the Partnership for L.A. Schools, which currently runs 18 high-needs LAUSD campuses, pooling donations to pay for services the district can't always offer.

Though this compromise followed a controversial parent trigger campaign, 20th Street's test scores improved without any of the parent trigger's most extreme remedies. 20th Street Elementary remains an LAUSD school. Most of the school's teaching staff hasn't changed since 2015; the Partnership even retained Garcielita as principal.

"That stands in contrast to the core principles of the parent trigger to dramatically and immediately disrupt the existing governance structure," said John Rogers, a professor at UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

But Seth Litt, the current leader of Parent Revolution, the advocacy group that connected 20th Street's parent trigger campaign with lawyers and organizers, says it took the trigger campaign to force LAUSD officials to make real changes.

"If parents hadn't organized and parents hadn't demanded change," Litt said, "what we see now would not have been catalyzed."

Students speak during 20th Street Elementary School's "culmination" ceremony for departing fifth grade students on Jun. 7, 2018. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

'WE'VE GOT TO DO SOMETHING FOR THE SCHOOL'

Initially, parents' issues with 20th Street Elementary — a campus in a low-income neighborhood just a few blocks from the 10 Freeway south of downtown — were pretty fundamental.

"My daughter," recalled Lupe Aragon, "who was in fifth grade, was getting math work of first- [or] second-grade students."

Aragon knew this because her granddaughter, a first grader, was getting similar assignments.

In 2014, 20th Street parents first turned to the Parent Empowerment Act. State lawmakers had enacted the law four years earlier, making California the first of six states to enact parent trigger legislation.

Under California's version of the law, if a school didn't meet certain academic benchmarks, parents could begin circulating trigger petitions. If they could convince half of the school's parents to sign, they could force staff to be fired, convert the school into a charter or order the school closed.

By the end of the 2014-2015 school year, 20th Street parents collected enough valid trigger signatures to force these changes, Litt said. But LAUSD officials convinced parents to hold back their signatures and give the district time to enact an improvement plan.

By November 2015, Litt said parents hadn't seen much change. And they had new motivation: results of California's then-brand new statewide standardized test came out, showing roughly four out of every five kids at 20th Street were below grade level in both English and math.

"For me, those numbers were the first thing," said Beatriz Corral, whose daughter was a kindergartner at the time. "That opened my eyes. I was like, 'Okay, we've got to do something for the school.'" (KPCC/LAist interviewed Corral in 2016.)

Parents watch 20th Street Elementary School's "culmination" ceremony for departing fifth grade students on Jun. 7, 2018. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC) (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

'YOU GUYS ARE JUST MAKING IT WORSE'

So, for the second straight year, 20th Street Elementary parents began gathering signatures on a parent trigger petition.

The campaign was divisive. Karla Vilchis, whose daughter attended 20th Street during that trigger campaign, decided not to sign the petition. She was concerned that drastic changes at the school wouldn't actually address parents' concerns.

"I was not with the same mentality that [trigger supporters] had, where they just wanted to be judging and not helping," Vilchis recalled. "I told them, 'You guys are just making it worse!'"

Vilchis said she lost friendships over her opposition to the parent trigger.

By spring 2016, the 20th Street parents had gathered the necessary 350-plus signatures to again force LAUSD to respond to its trigger petition. Roughly three out of every five parents at the school signed, they said.

LAUSD responded by rejecting the petition, citing legal technicalities. The effect would've been to bog down the 20th Street parents' trigger petition in a lengthy court fight. Though Parent Revolution's Litt still believes the parents could have won that legal case, parents also didn't want their kids to suffer in the meantime.

"We don't want to wait two or three years for the court to decide," said Aragon.

So in July 2016, after months of negotiations, the two sides reached a compromise.

Michael Ramirez, a first-grade teacher at 20th Street Elementary School just south of downtown L.A., teaches a lesson in his bungalow classroom on Dec. 6, 2017. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC) (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

'WHAT STOOD OUT TO YOU DURING THIS LESSON?'

A year-and-a-half later, Michael Ramirez's first graders sit cross-legged at the front of his bungalow classroom at 20th Street Elementary School.

Ramirez points to the opening line of a non-fiction passage called "Robots At Work," projected onto his classroom's white board.

"'Robots ... are ... amazing ... machines,'" his first-graders say in unison. Ramirez pauses.

"That's what the author thinks — that robots are amazing machines," he tells the class. "We need to figure out: how does he convince us of that?"

In the back of the room, a half-dozen of Ramirez's fellow teachers are observing his lesson. Assistant Principal Isabel Nino is there too, taking notes.

Nino's job is part of the July 2016 deal that averted a lengthy battle over the parent trigger at 20th Street.

The deal called for the Partnership for L.A. Schools to become the school's new day-to-day operator and called for the principal, Garcielita, to remain in place. But under the deal, LAUSD agreed to pay for an assistant principal — Nino — whose job would be to help 20th Street teachers fine-tune their instructional techniques.

Now, to show visitors how 20th Street has notched such remarkable improvements, school leaders point to the work she's doing in Ramirez's classroom on mornings like this one, in December 2017.

For 40 minutes, Ramirez helps his first-graders pick through the passage. Then, the lesson ends, the kids leave the room, and the teachers huddle with Nino, who begins the discussion.

"All right, so what are some strategies or some main things that stood out to you during this lesson?" she asks.

Data from the California Department of Education, Smarter Balanced Assessments, 2015-2018 (KPCC/LAist chart)

LET TEACHERS TEACH

These peer observation sessions at 20th Street — and Nino's focus on helping teachers — fit into the Partnership's broader strategy.

"What's happened at 20th Street," UCLA's John Rogers believes, "is largely the product of the Partnership coming in and using its model, focusing on promoting sustained development of the capacity of educators over time and building stronger relationships ... between community members and educators."

In other words: let teachers focus on teaching.

The coming of the Partnership, which leverages donations to pay for additional resources, has brought a few new bells and whistles to 20th Street, including a new, popular curriculum, Eureka Math. Garcielita also requested technology upgrades for the school.

Garcielita has also been mending bridges with the community. He said he's held dozens of parent workshops.

To Rogers, the Partnership's role at 20th Street highlights a shift in the organization's role in L.A.'s educational ecosystem.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa first formed the Partnership after a failed bid to give L.A.'s mayor more direct control over LAUSD — and many of the organization's earliest operatives shared the Villaraigosa's pro-charter stances. But since then, Rogers said the Partnership has become far less focused on fostering "competition" between L.A. schools.

A teacher at 20th Street Elementary School takes notes as he observes his colleague's lesson on Dec. 6, 2017. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC) (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

'HOW MUCH QUICKER COULD THIS PROGRESS HAVE HAPPENED?'

Parent Revolution's Seth Litt said there's a lot of credit to go around for 20th Street's improvement — to the Partnership, to teachers and to parents on both sides of the trigger campaigns.

He said parents who advocated for the trigger were willing to be branded as troublemakers to stand up for their school. He said parents who opposed the trigger campaign were equally praiseworthy: "They were invested in their school."

And no, the parent trigger was not enacted; 20th Street didn't go charter or reconstitute its staff.

But Litt cautioned against minimizing the role of the parent trigger in 20th Street's improvement: the trigger gave parents leverage to force change.

"When we look back at 20th Street," Litt said, "the question that keeps me up at night was: how much quicker could this progress have happened if the system was oriented at listening to parents rather than oriented at diminishing their experience?"

That leverage may be the parent trigger's legacy.

For all the controversy at the parent trigger's inception, there have only been a handful of actual parent trigger conversions since the law's inception in California.

The trigger law technically still exists. But California Department of Education officials believe they no longer can say which schools qualify as "underperforming" and as eligible for a trigger campaign; the 2010 law no longer lines up with the state's system for rating schools, which has changed in the intervening years.

Over the summer, state officials archived the page on Department of Education website devoted to the Parent Empowerment Law.

Litt argues parents could still mount a trigger campaign and criticized the state's decision to archive the page or refuse to publish a list of eligible schools.

But Parent Revolution has also shifted focus. Though they still would pursue a parent trigger campaign, they're also pushing for more systemic changes to empower parents.

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here.