October 28, 2005

School Matters – Legal Settlement Gives California Parents A Chance To Reform School

EDITOR’S NOTE: A South Los Angeles parents group have taken the dire conditions in their children’s schools into their own hands, and they are teaching other parents to do the same. The authors are members of CADRE, a parent-led campaign in South Los Angeles with a mission to solidify and advance parent leadership to ensure that all children are rightfully educated regardless of where they live.

By Adrian Angulo,
Roslyn Broadnax,
Earlene Elzy,
Naomi Haywood and
Hekima Jaliwa

LOS ANGELES—It’s been just over a year since California state legislators finalized key provisions for the settlement of Williams v. California, a lawsuit brought forth to hold the state accountable for schools that failed to provide qualified teachers, sufficient instructional materials and safe, uncrowded classrooms, particularly to low-income students of color.

The Williams settlement offers new and practical tools for parents, students and community members to play a vital role in holding schools that are failing in these areas accountable. By filing formal complaints that must be investigated and resolved by local districts, parents can directly improve their schools and seize a unique opportunity to foster relationships with school administrators through a transparent problem-solving process.

As members of a grass-roots parent group in South Los Angeles, we felt it was crucial to fulfill the Williams settlement in low-income communities of color, where students have endured poor, unfair learning conditions for too long.

Communication between schools and parents, however, has been far from effective, and we knew many parents would miss the opportunity to improve their children’s schools unless information about Williams was accessible beyond the school campus. We knew that information on the Williams settlement would not easily make its way into parent’s homes, so we took it to them. We spent time knocking on doors, and did phone follow-up to educate many South Los Angeles parents about their new rights within the settlement.

For a long time we heard accounts of textbooks not arriving until the second semester, grossly overcrowded classrooms and substitute teachers that were kept in the classroom year-round — all in our students’ most important subjects such as math and English. Until Williams, we felt we could do little about unequal resources in our schools. If we chose to voice our concerns to school personnel, we were often met with excuses, unfulfilled promises or bureaucratic red tape. The settlement, however, gave us new hope.

With a legal opportunity to close the resource gap in South Los Angeles schools, parents from our group, Community Asset Development Redefining Education, (CADRE), this past April presented Williams complaints to Fremont and Locke High Schools, Gompers Middle School and 107th Street School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. As a result of the two dozen complaints we filed this spring, two important things happened: our observations about the basic resources that were lacking in our children’s schools were formally recognized and investigated; and we renewed our faith in parent involvement when we saw responses to our complaints.

Our formal complaints added urgency for schools to fulfill their mandate to have the right instructional materials for students to do their schoolwork in class and at home. And we got results: more students got their books at two of the four schools. An unsanitary stairwell frequently used by students was cleaned up. Air conditioning in a classroom was repaired. Teachers’ qualifications to teach their subjects were checked and verified.

The Williams process gave voice to parents who have worked hard to establish positive relationships with their children’s schools. We were faced with the challenges of school administrators who did not respect us or take our input seriously. But we now had a legal mechanism with which to pursue our complaints.

Now, students, teachers, anyone, can make positive changes in their schools. Williams provides accountability to anyone willing to take the time to file a complaint. It is absolutely necessary to take such action. Our children deserve to learn at a high level, pass the tests that are gateways to their futures, and have equal access to college. We must, therefore, ensure our children have the basic necessities to do so.

CADRE strongly encourages more parents to experience this new role as participants in concrete school improvement as soon as possible. The steps to filing a Williams complaint are not adversarial but exactly what schools have asked parents to do all along: know our children’s teachers, examine their learning conditions and the adequacy of their learning materials, protect the health and safety of our children, and above all, stand up for our children. It takes work, but it is our obligation to our kids as well as our right as parents. We must no longer hesitate to visit our schools, ask questions, and be the eyes and ears of the community.

Our timing is critical: the Williams settlement requires that from now on our children’s basic learning conditions must be met within the first two months of the school year. So file your complaints early. No longer is it acceptable that entire semesters go by with children not having books or teachers. Parents must submit more complaints so that all children benefit from this settlement. If we continue to act with steady momentum, we expect to see even greater accountability and results in our children’s schools.

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