Mar Vista parents and community members whose children will and do attend Mark Twain Middle School converged at the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Board of Education June 30th meeting to issue the board an ultimatum regarding their children’s academic future.

The Mar Vista parents group, along with their counterparts at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, have signed a petition demanding that LAUSD transform their schools from what many consider to be failing institutions into high quality schools. If their demands are not met, they have pledged to explore the possibility of enrolling their children in a charter school.

“I’m doing this for my children,” said Barbara Einstein, who has four daughters at Walgrove Elementary Schools who will attend Mark Twain in two years.

The parents’ arrival at the board meeting also coincided with the first board meeting for Steve Zimmer, the successor to Marlene Canter, who served three terms on the LAUSD board representing District 4, which includes Venice, Mar Vista, Westchester and Del Rey.

Zimmer, a former LAUSD teacher, defeated candidate Mike Stryer in the November election.

Members of the Parent Revolution, an organization that was created to give parents a voice when it comes to their child’s education, also attended the meeting to support the community members who came to address the board.

Ben Austin, the executive vice-president of the Los Angeles Parents Union, said that the goal was to make the district more responsive to both the students’ and their families’ educational needs.

“A lot of people know that LAUSD is broken,” said Austin, a former aide to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa who considered running for Canter’s seat last year. “LAUSD is failing because it is not designed to succeed.”

According to Education.com, Mark Twain scored 657 on its Academic Performance Index in 2008. State education officials have made 800 the benchmark for all California schools.

The API is a measurement in California of academic performance and progress of individual schools.

Einstein says that she is concerned about her children’s education as they inch closer to middle school because of Mark Twain’s recent poor API performance, and she feels that she will not have the time to be as directly involved with their schooling in a few years.

“I think that there is a lot of potential at Mark Twain, but right now, I can be more involved with my kids’ school life than I would at Mark Twain because of the teachers at Walgrove,” she said.

A press release announcing the event states that “if parents don’t receive the change that they are asking for, they will take back their power by pulling their children out of failing LAUSD-run schools and send them to a high-performing charter school.”

When questioned about which “high-performing charter school” Mar Vista parents would send their children, Austin conceded that was still in the planning stages.

“Our goal is not to ‘charterize’ the district,’” stated Austin, who formerly worked with Green Dot Charter Schools, which have been seeking a stronger presence in LAUSD. “The two criteria that we would have for a charter school in the Venice-Mar Vista area would be that they are nonprofit and that they are high-performing.”

At her last board meeting on June 16th, Canter addressed the advantages and disadvantages that she sees with charter schools.

“I have learned that you cannot replicate a charter school,” the former school board member cautioned. “I admire their tenacity but I am deeply aware that without the (education) code or collective bargaining agreements or minimized agreements, they have more freedom to work more efficiently and effectively.

“We must find better ways to foster reform and innovation from within the district or else all people who want to be reformers will go to charters and we will have created the demise of our public schools.”

Kelly Kane, a parent volunteer who is one of the primary leaders in launching an academic reform effort for schools in Westchester, applauds action by parents to become more involved in seeking ways to make local schools better, but cautioned against criticizing LAUSD without a plan of action to transform district schools.

“I wholeheartedly support empowering parents to have a voice and more engagement in their schools and their children’s education,” said Kane, president of the Westchester-Playa Education Foundation who also once worked for the Los Angeles Parents Union.

“However,” she added, “having gone through the beginning stages of educational reform in Westchester, I would advise that any reforms need to be both organic and democratic.”

The Westchester autonomy effort is a case in point that reform can be difficult. While its advocates are excited about the creation of school governance councils, their ability to hire their own administrators and having more direct parent and community involvement, the transition has not been as smooth as many, including Kane, had hoped it would be.

“We don’t pretend to have a lock on all good ideas,” Austin acknowledged. “We are hoping that the district will respond to helping us transform Mark Twain into a high-performing, high-quality school.”

Raul Fernandez, the principal at Mark Twain, could not be reached for comment.

Einstein said that she was unsure if a charter school was the right answer to the solution of giving her daughters a good education.

“A charter school might not be the optimal way to go, but I would consider it,” she said.

Kane reiterated that when parents, community groups or schools are planning to embark on a reform movement, it is best to have their goals clearly outlined. She believes that anything less would be the equivalent of “dropping one bureaucracy in favor of another bureaucracy.”

Zimmer did not return calls for comment as of Argonaut press time.

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