Parents create a stir in Fullerton schools

CONFLICT: A grass-roots group ruffles some feathers as it pushes for 'back- to-basics' curriculum.

FULLERTON, CA—Sunday evening, 7 o’clock. Most people are at home
watching “60 Minutes” or preparing for another knuckle-grinding week, but about 20 men and women have pulled away from their families and gathered in a fluorescent-lit community room at Quaker City Savings and Loan.

“The superintendent was invited but decided not to come tonight,” boomed Conrad DeWitt, the white-haired, cannon-voiced nominal leader of the group. “But I thought we would just go over all this stuff anyway. “

And so began another meeting of Concerned Parents and Citizens of Fullerton, which in a few months seems to have caused the biggest stir in Fullerton educational circles in years.

Confronted with what they perceived as a foot-dragging school board, the group has lobbied for full disclosure of achievement-test scores, gathered more recruits for their cause and raised other issues to improve their children’s schools.

Fullerton School District board meetings, once scantily attended affairs, now draw audiences of 125 or more. The heightened interest dates back to the summer, when the group followed the lead of first-term board member Kim Guth and asked the board to post at schools or mail to parents school-by-school achievement test scores for the 11,700-student, K-8 district.

The district refused but ultimately provided the figures to the group. Members passed out some of the scores.

“That made some people pretty mad when we did that,” DeWitt said. “Some of these scores are very poor. ” Teachers’ union officials, certain parents and others have criticized Concerned Parents as “negative,” “destructive” and worse. Group members say they are interested only in influencing “back-to-basics” reforms such as those in the Orange Unified School District.

The group was feeling the sting of its budding public profile at last Sunday’s meeting _ held semimonthly, in advance of Tuesday school-board meetings _ as members stewed over a flier distributed by the Fullerton Elementary Teachers Association to district teachers.

“For the past several months, Kim Guth and her circle of followers have banded together to attack the Fullerton School District,” the flier read. “Their enemy is the board,
administration and the teachers ”
“This is unfortunate,” said Dennis Lewis, a member of the group.

“Somehow we need to communicate that we’re interested in building better schools, not in tearing anything down. “

Despite the absence of Superintendent Ron Cooper, the group embarked on a point-by-point discussion of educational issues they consider important: test scores, bilingual education, special education, minimum amounts of classroom time spent on basic subjects, reading instruction, phonics and psychological testing.

The group then went over the school-board agenda and appointed people to address certain topics. Guth was not mentioned. As the 2 1/2-hour meeting wound down, the group left the impression of a diverse gathering with various interests attempting to coalesce.

There were both young parents with elementary school-age children and grandparents. They were Anglo, Hispanic, Asian and Eastern European. Some, such as DeWitt, a former city councilman, had some political savvy; most professed to be simply concerned citizens.

All appeared to be struggling to avoid the quicksand represented by critics and others who _ as so often happens _ seemed intent on labeling them.

Guth and group members say their only connection is that they share similar concerns about schools. She has attended some group meetings but said, “I don’t control anyone and no one controls me. ” Steve Balentine, executive director of the 2,000-member North Orange County United Teachers Association, which represents instructors in five districts, including Fullerton, said the group’s model is the Orange school district, which he terms “a disaster area. Teachers are leaving in droves and everything has a political agenda. “

DeWitt, for one, doesn’t shy away from the Orange comparisons.

“We like what’s going on there, where they’ve decided to put kids first and really attack what’s wrong with schools. We like what’s going on in Santa Ana, where the superintendent (Al Mijares) has said they will concentrate solely on the three R’s. Those districts have leadership. We want that kind of leadership. “

Like similar gatherings in Garden Grove and elsewhere in Orange County, most group members favor the dismantling of bilingual education, oppose psychological counseling on campus and argue that children should concentrate on reading, writing and math.

The sometimes unpleasant relationship between group members and the board _ except for Guth _ has spilled over into board meetings.

Recently, Concerned Parents speakers _ following the script they hashed out _ questioned the board on numerous topics, with DeWitt thundering about the board’s recent decision to hold an important session in the afternoon when many find it difficult to attend.

Other parents responded by addressing Guth directly, criticizing some of her positions and quizzing her about her connection to Concerned Parents.

“I was shocked by the vitriolic nature of the dialogue,” said Pete Freeman, a Fullerton parent who attended some Concerned Parents meetings. “I guess I’m still under the naive impression that there are ways to disagree agreeably on things. “

Freeman said he has not joined the group because some members “seem to be farther along in their thinking about what needs to be done than I am. ” Talk about fielding school-board candidates in 1998, for example, made him uncomfortable.

Much of the discomfort at board meetings may be a result of Guth’s persona. The sessions historically have been quiet, longtime observers said.

“Kim is a bright woman, very bright,” said Robert Fisler, a 21-year veteran of the board. “She’s demanded things _ that’s one of the problems. Normally members are polite to one another and we respect each other’s viewpoints and we don’t make demands on the administration. “

Even those who think highly of Guth say she can be abrasive.

“Even when she’s just asking a fair question, she doesn’t always sound diplomatic,” Freeman said. “But I think she’s getting better about that. “

Guth said she will continue to ask questions will encourage people to keep coming to board meetings.

“I think I’ve had an impact,” she said. “I hope people keep coming and ask their questions, like Concerned Parents has done. I can’t think of everything. “

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