When students arrived for the first day of classes on Tuesday at 24th Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, they returned to a school almost nothing like the one they left last year. The school was transformed with amenities that would be considered standard at many other schools: water fountains and bathrooms that work, a clean campus and teachers and staff eager to advance their education.
Parents at the elementary school have spoken out over a number of concerns. They complained that teachers were frequently absent, that people had entered the school without a visitor's pass, and that at one point animal carcases were left rotting in the building's ventilation system. But most of all, they were concerned with the school's poor academic performance – it ranked in the bottom 10 percent of all Los Angeles elementary schools, and the majority of its students performed far below their grade level in reading and math.
After holding two protests and pressing for change to no avail, parents took matters into their own hands by gathering a nearly 70 percent majority to invoke California's parent-empowerment law, known as the "parent trigger," and reopened the elementary school this week as a historic charter school-district hybrid. The law, signed in 2010, allows a majority of parents to essentially take over a failing school by outfitting it with new teachers and staff, transforming it into a charter school or closing the campus completely.
"The great thing is now we are being listened to as parents," says Maria Alcala, whose son David, 5, started first grade on Tuesday. "It is up to us as parents to speak up for our children and talk more about how much they actually deserve that they are not receiving."
On average, only about half of students in Los Angeles unified schools score proficient or advanced in English, and about 60 percent do so for math. But the situation was far worse at 24th Street Elementary.
In the last five years, not even one-third of students tested as proficient or advanced in English, and slightly more than one-third did so in mathematics, according to California standardized test data.
Parent trigger laws exist in a handful of other states (Mississippi, Connecticut, Indiana, Ohio, Texas and Louisiana) but takeovers have only been attempted in California, and the only schools to pull it off have done so with the help of the nonprofit organization Parent Revolution.
Petition drives in Compton and Adelanto, both in southern California, set off a chain of legal battles, with Compton's ultimately failing in 2011. But the Los Angeles Unified School District accepted the 24th Street Elementary petition without challenge and approved it after about one month in February.
Two other southern California schools are reopening this fall after successfully petitioning their school districts. In Adelanto, Calif., Desert Trails Elementary School reopened under the operation of a charter company. Meanwhile, Weigand Avenue Elementary, a school located in the South Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts – known as one of the worst schools in the entire district – reopened with a new principal and several new teachers.
But the revamped 24th Street Elementary is not just a first for successfully and smoothly implementing the parent trigger law. It's also a unique collaboration between the school district and charter school operator Crown Preparatory Academy, which has operated independently in vacant classrooms on the same campus. A committee of parents who led the charge to transform the school were tasked with selecting a new principal and staff, as well as evaluating different proposals from those vying for the opportunity to take over.
One surprising proposal, however, came from the Los Angeles school district itself, says Ben Austin, the executive director of Parent Revolution.