Published Online: October 15, 2013
Published in Print: October 16, 2013, as Parent-Sparked Charter Faces Challenge to Deliver

'Parent Trigger' School Faces Challenge to Deliver

School created by 'trigger' law opens to high expectations

The parent-led battle to transform Desert Trails Elementary School into a charter school may be over, but the storybook ending that many charter supporters sought for the children in this Mojave Desert community may be even more challenging to achieve.

More than two months after the first school in the nation to be overhauled following a so-called "parent trigger" campaign opened its doors in July, many parents at the newly named Desert Trails Preparatory Academy say they are pleased with what they're seeing of the instruction, atmosphere, and administration of the new charter school.

But as the school's staff faces the daunting job of turning around a failing school, an unknown dimension of the task is what role these newly empowered parents will play in Desert Trails' future—and how quickly the community's wounds will heal after the divisive fight over the school's creation.

Concerned by poor test scores and the former school's failure to meet California Department of Education achievement goals for several years, a determined group of parents—bolstered by outside support—won a lengthy and highly charged petition drive and legal dispute in 2012 to transform Desert Trails Elementary into a charter school. The two-year campaign, made possible under California's 2010 Parent Empowerment Act, pitted parent against parent, denigrated some of the school's former teachers, and interfered with students' learning, some here say.

Debbie Tarver, Desert Trails' charter operator and executive director, said she is trying to insulate the school from the controversy brought on by use of California's first-in-the-nation parent-trigger law, which permits parents to petition for sweeping education improvement measures and staffing changes at low-performing schools.

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Proponents of the law believe it gives parents a long-deserved right to demand change at deeply troubled schools; critics say it's an ill-conceived reform effort that gives outside operators with questionable motives undue influence in local communities.

"We cannot deny these students another year of being educated," Ms. Tarver said emphatically. "You want to see a battle or a fight going on, ... that will be my battle."

Current teachers and staff members at the school, located about 80 miles northeast of Los Angeles, say their primary focus is improving student achievement and nurturing young minds. Parents say they're encouraged by the school's stronger emphasis on academics.

And several of the 350 former Desert Trails students who returned said that although they miss their friends and former teachers, they're relieved to have a school climate with far fewer disciplinary problems.

"It's like a family here," parent Marquitia Salah said, after walking her sons to their classrooms on a recent morning. Ms. Salah, who enrolled two of her sons in the charter school, and whose children previously attended school in another district, added: "For me, this has been one of the best decisions of my life."

Parent Cynthia Ramirez, center, the lead organizer of the Desert Trails Parent Union, at a union meeting with other parents in Adelanto, Calif. Members of the group say they want to remain vigilant and involved after initiating the creation of Desert Trails Preparatory Academy, a charter school.
—Eric Grigorian for Education Week

But it's unclear whether this community of roughly 32,000 people who are weary of the media spotlight—which included "Won't Back Down," a Hollywood movie inspired by the parent-trigger law—will support Desert Trails and its 540 students again. Ms. Tarver, who is modeling Desert Trails after her successful charter school in nearby Hesperia, Calif., admits she's facing tough odds.

"To have to turn the school over to an outside agency that you don't know anything about was hard on them," Ms. Tarver said of people in the community. "I understood the bitterness. But I wasn't the person that caused this."

Parent Power

Still vigilant after the contentious campaign to reinvent their former failing school are the parents who took up the fight with the help of Parent Revolution, a parent-trigger-advocacy group based in Los Angeles. The nonprofit group is funded in part by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.

(The Gates Foundation helps support Education Week's coverage of business and K-12 innovation; Walton helps support coverage of parent-empowerment issues. The newspaper retains sole editorial control over that coverage.)

The Desert Trails Parent Union, a group that formed to garner support for the parent trigger, holds meetings in the public park adjacent to the school in plain view of Ms. Tarver's office window. A few union members walk around campus wearing Parent Revolution T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "I am the revolution."

But Ms. Tarver is trying to build a relationship with the 8,400-student Adelanto Elementary School District which is the authorizer for her three-year charter school contract. She is trying to distance the new school from the politics and debate surrounding the parent union.

California Parent Empowerment Act

The Parent Empowerment Act, which is commonly called the parent-trigger law, was signed into law Jan. 7, 2010.

A school is eligible for intervention under the law if it has:

  • Failed to meet adequate yearly progress.
  • A score of less than 800 on the state’s Academic Performance Index.
  • Been in corrective action for at least one full academic year.
  • Not been identified by the state board of education as a persistently low-achieving school.

At least 50 percent of the parents or legal guardians of students attending the school (or those who would matriculate into the school) must sign a petition to request the local school board to use one of the following intervention methods:

Turnaround: Replace the principal and 50 percent of the teaching staff.
Restart: Convert or close and reopen a school under a charter school operator, a charter management organization, or an education management organization.
School closure: Close the school and enroll students at higher-achieving nearby schools.
Transformation: Replace the principal and other staff members who failed to improve student achievement; adopt comprehensive instructional reform strategies; increase learning time; establish community-oriented schools; and provide operational flexibility and support to fully implement the reform efforts.
Alternative governance arrangement: Undertake a “major restructuring of the school’s governance arrangement” to boost student achievement.

The local school board must implement the requested intervention method selected by the petitioners the year after the petitions are submitted.

In September, she wrote a detailed letter to Desert Trails parents stressing the differences between the parent union and the academy's new parent-advisory council, which will help staff members implement school programs. While she applauded the union for its past efforts, she added that the school must "maintain a positive relationship with our authorizer."

Ms. Tarver encourages parents to support the school by wearing Desert Trails T-shirts sporting its new logo: an owl wearing a cap and gown.

Taking a break from volunteer duties in a kindergarten class, the parent union's lead organizer, Cynthia Ramirez, said the group understands that its activities must be separate from the school. Ms. Ramirez said the group strongly supports the new school and its leader.

"The tension left the minute the district left the school," said Ms. Ramirez, a mother of two Desert Trails students. "The teachers are here because they want to be here. They're happy. You can see it in their eyes."

Still, she said, parent-union members, emboldened by their Desert Trails petition drive, want to leverage their newly acquired power and knowledge to collaborate with schools and the district to boost student achievement at other schools. The union of about 150 parents is actively recruiting new members across the struggling Adelanto district and may even consider changing its name to be more representative of the entire community.

"We were just a bunch of angry parents who didn't like what our school was doing," Ms. Ramirez said.

Some Regrets

Yet at least one former parent-union leader regrets the divisive struggle over Desert Trails and is trying to create his own locally based parent-empowerment group.

Once an ardent Parent Revolution supporter, Joe Morales said he became disillusioned as tensions began to mount during the campaign.

Mr. Morales, who has two children enrolled at Desert Trails, claims that Parent Revolution organizers encouraged parent-union members to spread false information about the school's teachers and parents who opposed the trigger.

"Parent Revolution left a lot of heartache and a lot enemies behind," said Mr. Morales, who is still a Desert Trails Parent Union member. "They didn't know how to heal the people before they left."

Ben Austin, Parent Revolution's executive director, disputes claims that his organization intimidated or harassed Adelanto residents. He said the group has a strict code of conduct, which includes the so-called Los Angeles Times rule: "Don't do anything in organizing that you wouldn't want to see on the front page of the L.A. Times."

Still, Mr. Austin admits that his group is trying to flesh out the role of parent unions once a parent-trigger campaign ends. Parent Revolution is reaching out to the National PTA for guidance, he said.

The Long Trail

The path to opening for the first school initiated under a state parent-trigger law hasn't always been smooth.

Jan. 7, 2010
California’s Parent Empowerment Act, also known as the “parent trigger,” is signed into law (effective April 12, 2010).

Dec. 7, 2010
Parents at McKinley Elementary School, in Compton, Calif., present Compton Unified School District administrators with the state’s first parent-trigger petition. Following a legal battle, the parents’ effort fails. While a privately run charter school eventually opens in Compton, few of its students are from McKinley, according to news reports.

June 2011
After learning about the Compton parents’ efforts, parents of children attending Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif., reach out to the nonprofit advocacy group Parent Revolution.

Sept. 15, 2011
The Desert Trails Parent Union is formed.

Jan. 12, 2012
The parents’ union submits a petition to the school’s principal, David Mobley, the first step to launch the parent trigger.

Feb. 21, 2012
The Adelanto board of trustees returns the petition to the parents’ union after finding deficiencies that included missing signatures, dates, and school name. The school district also cites parents who said they signed “under false pretenses, misunderstood the petition, or otherwise signed the petition in error.”

March 28, 2012
The board of trustees rejects the parents’ petition, citing a lack of valid signatures and a failure to meet the minimum requirement of supporters needed.

April 5, 2012
Parents sue the Adelanto Elementary School District and school board seeking a judge’s ruling to force the school system to accept the parents’ petition.

July 18, 2012
San Bernadino County Court Judge Steve Malone overrules the Adelanto school board’s decision to reject the petition. He orders the school board and district to “immediately begin the process of soliciting and selecting charter school proposals.”

October 2012

  • Victorville Superior Court Judge John P. Vander Feer orders the school district to permit the parent union to turn Desert Trails into a charter at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year.
  • Parents recommend that the charter operator who runs La Verne Preparatory Academy in nearby Hesperia, Calif., be in charge of the transformation.

November 2012
Parent-trigger critic and Adelanto board of trustees President Carlos Mendoza loses his re-election bid, while Teresa Rogers, a member of the Desert Trails Parent Union, wins a seat on the board.

January 2013

  • The board of trustees unanimously approves the parents’ recommendation to select the charter school operator of La Verne Preparatory Academy to turn Desert Trails into a charter.
  • Lisa Marie Garcia, a former board of trustees member and parent of a current Desert Trails Preparatory Academy student, is selected by the school board to fill the seat left vacant by the December resignation of Jermaine Wright Sr.
  • Lily Matos DeBlieux, an assistant superintendent for elementary schools in the Monterey Peninsula district, is chosen to be the Adelanto district’s superintendent.

June 14, 2013
Desert Trails Elementary School holds its last day of school.

July 29, 2013
Desert Trails Preparatory Academy, the new charter school, opens.

Mr. Austin acknowledges that his organization made some mistakes in past parent-trigger campaigns, particularly a failed effort in Compton, Calif. He said the group was too heavy-handed in running the Compton petition campaign, rather than letting parents take the lead.

He is adamant, however, that the parents ran the show in Adelanto. And he said that contrary to parent-trigger critics' assertions, no master plan exists to hand public schools over to billionaires' corporations.

"It's patronizing to think that low-income parents can't think for themselves," Mr. Austin said in a telephone interview. "The parent trigger is helping people who are traditionally powerless find power over the education of their own kids."

Edwin C. Darden, the director of education law and national collaboration for Appleseed, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes social-justice issues and parent engagement, said parent-trigger laws start with a confrontation—the petition calling for a school's transformation—rather than a conversation, which often leaves little room for negotiation.

He suggested that amending parent-trigger laws, like the one in California, to include a mediation process to identify the issues and the options available for improving schools could yield a more thoughtful solution.

"This is emotional for everybody," Mr. Darden said. "It's tough for both sides to dial down the drama and have a conversation about what they can and cannot change."

Reason for Involvement

Ron Griffin, who as the Desert Trails school's director manages day-to-day operations—a position analogous to that of principal—said he believes that parent engagement is the main solution to fix the public education system, especially for students from disadvantaged families. He said the school aims to embrace parents and help them be decisionmakers and partners in their children's education.

"We know that once you show parents the reason for their involvement, most will choose to do the right things for their kids," said Mr. Griffin, a former director of San Bernardino County's Head Start schools.

On a recent visit to the Desert Trails campus, parents could be found from the workroom to the classroom. Parents were permitted to walk their children to their classrooms and to sit in on lessons. A 1st grade classroom had so many parents show up for student presentations that they were spilling out the doorway. Another parent escorted a sheriff's deputy into several classrooms for impromptu talks with children after the deputy's planned visit to just one room.

"Teachers encourage parents to be involved now," said Loretta Gilbert, whose 6-year-old son is a returning Desert Trails student. "Parents are excited about being here."

Classrooms, especially at the lower grade levels, featured word walls, times tables, maps, behavior charts, and student work covering practically every inch of wall space. Students stood at attention and greeted visitors warmly in every classroom.

It's a tradition carried on from Ms. Tarver's Hesperia school—LaVerne Elementary Preparatory Academy—which had its beginnings, like those of many other charter schools, in an old strip mall.

Teacher Marlene Strickland reads a story in her kindergarten class. Many parents say they are pleased with the instruction, atmosphere, and administration at the newly created charter school. The school faces some daunting academic challenges, however.
—Eric Grigorian for Education Week

The latest round of state school performance results shows that LaVerne Elementary has among the highest test scores in the High Desert area, which includes Desert Trails.

Challenges Ahead

Almost 100 percent of Desert Trails' students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. About 85 percent of the students are Hispanic, and 12 percent are African-American. (LaVerne Elementary has similar student demographics.)

Ms. Tarver, who calls her students "scholars," said she already sees academic growth among Desert Trails students, but she cautioned that progress would take time. She's already hired additional instructional aides after determining that some students are more than four years behind academically.

During the petition process, Desert Trails' state test scores were the lowest in the district, ranking the elementary school in the bottom 10 percent in the state. The school was on the federal watch list for low-performing schools. The latest round of state test scores, released this year, showed that Desert Trails' Academic-Performance Index dropped 53 points, to 647, on a scale of 200 to 1,000.

Ms. Tarver is moving forward with her school's education plan, which has teachers beginning to teach a grade ahead starting in January. Students can stay for an extra hour of tutoring with their classroom teachers three days a week. So far, about 90 percent stay in school. And every classroom has no more than 25 students.

Some of the academy's young teachers were unaware that Desert Trails has been at the center of a heated national debate. One teacher admitted that she had to Google the term "charter school" before her job interview. Still others, who came from LaVerne Elementary, said their only challenge is not letting their students and their parents down.

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"I don't care who is watching me," kindergarten teacher Elfie Landa said during a lunch break. "I feel like there's too much at stake to worry about that. You have to get your students to love learning."

Looking back, Mr. Morales said he joined the Desert Trails Parent Union and aligned himself with Parent Revolution to secure a more promising future for his children and all Desert Trails' students.

"The pain, the stress, the false promises—that wasn't worth it," he said, sighing. "But Debbie [Tarver] and her school, ... that lady has a good heart and a good mindset when it comes to kids. I would do it again, if it was going to be her [running the school]."


Pulling the Parent Trigger



Vol. 33, Issue 08, Pages 1,18-20

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