Empowering parents — to sign petitions or become engines for change?

On Wednesday, the California State Board of Education will vote to approve regulations implementing California’s parent empowerment law. Given the intense scrutiny this law has received, it’s important to remember that it is just a small step on the road toward truly empowering parents.

Nibbling at the edges

Passed by the Legislature in 2009, the “Parent Trigger” statute allows parents to petition their school district boards to adopt one of the turnaround interventions handed down by the feds. But community advocates like us wonder: What if parents don’t want any of these turnaround options?

There are many reasons why they wouldn’t. Though much ballyhooed by some, especially charter advocates, the new law is actually quite modest in scope. First, only 75 of the state’s 9,000 schools can actually implement a trigger. Second, if they succeed, they are essentially limited to using one of the federally prescribed and fairly narrow school turnaround interventions set out under the School Improvement Grant program. The petitioned district must either: (1) close the school, (2) replace it with a charter school or reopen with new management, (3) fire the principal and at least half the staff, or (4) fire the principal and transform the school in line with federal regulations.

Unfortunately, none of the four options was then or is now supported by research indicating that they actually work. Moreover, other strategies that have succeeded are precluded from consideration. The bottom line: Enabling parents in a handful of the state’s schools to force through one of four unproven federal turnaround options may be useful in some instances, but this minor step forward is hardly a revolution.

There’s another way – one in which parents, students, teachers, and community members are active participants in the process of developing and implementing a plan for transforming their schools, not merely signers of a petition.

A blueprint for success

We know it can be done. A report by Communities for Excellent Public Schools (“A Proposal for Sustainable School Transformation,” July 2010), a national coalition of more than 25 community-based education reform organizations, highlights the community-based school reform effort at Greenleaf Elementary in Oakland. After failed attempts to use No Child Left Behind-driven reforms (e.g., firing teachers, charter conversion), Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) supported a design development team composed of students, parents, educators, community members, and district staff to do the hard work of a year-long planning process.

This process included mapping the assets of the school and neighborhood, analyzing student achievement data, visiting high-performing schools serving similar students, and participating in extensive community engagement and partnership. The report describes how the team’s unified vision for the school became a reality:

Greenleaf Elementary, serving low-income Latino and African American students, has become a symbol of pride and hope for a long underserved neighborhood. In addition to a strong standards-based academic curriculum, students enjoy enrichment through music, art, and physical education classes. The school partners with a variety of community-based organizations who provide resources for students and families that include counseling, dental screening, food giveaways, and English and computer classes. Through an active parent leadership team parents are active partners in the life of the school. Teachers are part of a professional learning community, receive support and guidance from coaches, and share parents’ vision and expectations for high achievement for every student.

Despite multiple changes in district leadership, including a state takeover, the school community kept its eye on the prize – higher levels of student achievement – due in large part to the support, engagement, and commitment of Oakland parents, community members, and district and school leaders who had been part of the process from the beginning and were fully invested in its success.

The results speak for themselves. Just three years after the school’s transformation began, the percentage of students proficient in English had risen from 14 to 42 percent, and from 25 to 66 percent in math. Because of similar community-led reform efforts at schools throughout the district, Oakland Unified has been named the most improved urban school district for six years.

Still fighting for change

We, along with other parent and student advocates, will continue pushing to increase the rights and opportunities for low-income parents and communities to partner with their children’s schools. And we will continue to work to improve our state’s parent empowerment laws.

Why? It’s true that the “Parent Trigger” regulations attempt to make a limited and vague statute work. Assemblymember Julia Brownley’s pending AB 203 makes some important improvements to the statute as well, and it deserves to be approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

But larger, more powerful parent and community engagement is both possible and desperately needed. Again and again, we and our community-based allies have advocated that sustainable school turnaround efforts must be developed, embraced, and implemented by an entire school community if they are going to be successful. School and district staff alone cannot identify, implement, and sustain a school turnaround.

True parent empowerment requires hard work and support to build the capacity of schools, districts, and communities so that parents can be engaged and informed partners in the school improvement process. That’s real empowerment – and that’s what our policies should be designed to encourage.

Katie Valenzuela, a Policy Advocate for Public Advocates, co-authored  this piece. Liz Guillen is Director of Legislative & Community Affairs at Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that challenges the systemic causes of poverty and racial discrimination by strengthening community voices in public policy. She works closely with community and grassroots organizations across California to advocate for improved opportunities to learn in the public school system.