Charter-Campaign Aftershocks Continue
Mojave Desert communities seek to move beyond controversy
West Creek Elementary School is quietly trying to forge its own path, free from the national spotlight and controversy that dogged its new principal in his last post.
David Mobley was the principal at Desert Trails Elementary School in the neighboring city of Adelanto for less than two years before parents there successfully petitioned to hand the school over to a charter operator, under California's parent-trigger law.
"We have a great little school here," Mr. Mobley said recently, as he walked around the campus of West Creek, also part of the Adelanto School District. "But the pressure doesn't change, to be honest. The pressure is: Are we doing the right thing for our students?"
In one sense, West Creek Elementary is emblematic of the divisions that still exist in these Mojave Desert communities following the parent-trigger campaign that closed Desert Trails: The former Desert Trails school's homepage still features a poster with a giant hand pointing at the site's visitors and the message "We Want You," urging parents to follow Mr. Mobley to West Creek, just four miles from Desert Trails.
Some students and teachers did just that, while others chose to stay at Desert Trails or move on to other campuses in the Adelanto Elementary School District.
Now the Adelanto district is searching for ways to bring the community back together to work on reviving all of its low-performing schools so that more parents don't seek to use the state's parent-trigger law to mandate changes.
Some people here believe a transparent, collaborative approach is missing from the parent-trigger process, and blame the law and the campaign for forcing Desert Trails staff members to find jobs elsewhere and driving some parents to enroll their children in different schools.
"We got kicked out of our house," said Lori Yuan, the parent of two former Desert Trails students. "It hurt."
Many parents and educators who opposed the parent-led overhaul of Desert Trails are reluctant to relive the contentious two-year campaign. They believe teachers were ignored throughout the power struggle, and several former Desert Trails teachers declined to discuss their former school at all.
"To have your hand extended out to the community and to be rejected in such an aggressive manner can really break your spirit," said La Nita Dominique, the former president of the Adelanto District Teacher Association and a 5th-grade teacher at another school in the district.
The struggle in Adelanto made national headlines, led to a court battle, and resulted in a parent takeover at Desert Trails that "ripped the community apart," in the view of many people here.
"There were a lot of good people on both sides," Mr. Mobley said, adding that changes he made in his final year at Desert Trails had promise.
"They waited a long time for some changes," he said of the parents who were unhappy with the school. "I was just a little too late."
The urgency to improve the district's schools remains.
The district's score on the state's Academic Performance Index for the 2012-13 school declined to 711 from 736 the previous year, on a scale of 200 to 1,000. Every one of Adelanto's 13 elementary schools saw its API scores drop.
Only 23 percent of the district's 3rd graders scored proficient or above on the state test this past school year—just half the statewide proportion of 46 percent. And eight of its schools are on the federal watch list for low-performing schools.
Some of the same parents who formed the Desert Trails Parent Union to mandate change at that school are hoping to help initiate changes at other, still-unspecified Adelanto schools without activating the parent trigger.
So far, there have been no discussions between Superintendent Lily Matos DeBlieux and the parent union. But Ms. DeBlieux met this month with Ben Austin, the executive director of Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles-based advocacy group that helped organize and train Desert Trails parents to use the trigger law. She said Mr. Austin assured her that there were no plans to mount another parent-trigger campaign in Adelanto.
"Nobody wants that to happen again," said Ms. DeBlieux, who took the helm of the 8,400-student district in March. "We want to work collaboratively."
(Parent Revolution is funded in part by the Walton Family Foundation, which helps to support Education Week coverage of parent-empowerment issues.)
Even before Desert Trails Elementary School closed its doors in June and prepared to reopen as a charter school in July, the district started to reach out to parents through communitywide open houses. Adelanto parents also are taking part in training programs to help them navigate the education system and support student learning at home as well.
Ms. De Blieux said she believes parents will be more patient as long as they stay informed and are included in the schools' decision-making process.
"We have to empower parents and give them hope," she said.
Rebuilding trust in Adelanto may prove to be the biggest hurdle.
Matthew Carlson, a former Desert Trails teacher who now teaches at another Adelanto district school, felt strongly that the parent-trigger was the wrong way to force changes, but believes it could end up being used in the future.
"I think what happened here made it very clear that it could happen again," he said. "I think that in the future, schools, district offices, and the establishment will take people much more seriously when they come to them and say, 'We really are not happy as parents.' "
Vol. 33, Issue 08, Page 20