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Families & the Community

Two Suitors Bid to Transform ‘Parent-Trigger’ School

By Sean Cavanagh — October 08, 2012 6 min read
Principal David Mobley, left, is handed 465 signatures earlier this year from parents of students at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif., where families used the state's 2010 "parent trigger" law to petition to convert the academically struggling school into a charter school.

At the end of a process that drew just four applicants, two relatively small California organizations are each making a case that they be allowed to help lead one of the most publicized school turnaround efforts in the nation’s history: the proposed transformation of Desert Trails Elementary School.

Parents in the community of Adelanto, northeast of Los Angeles, invited charter operators to submit proposals to help them transform the academically struggling school through the state’s “parent trigger” law, even as the school’s future remains the subject of a protracted legal battle.

Despite the overwhelming attention focused on the proposed school overhaul, the parents received limited interest from charter organizations before narrowing the list to two finalists.

The parents and others supporting the school transformation say the finalists, both based in Southern California, bring attributes they want—particularly strong academic records and an understanding of the needs of the students and families in the rural area in the Mojave Desert.

“We wanted to keep it within the community, to keep it local,” said Doreen Diaz, who is helping lead parents seeking to convert the school to a charter. “They’re very different applicants and they speak to our community.”

At the same time, neither of the two finalists, LaVerne Elementary Preparatory Academy, in the nearby city of Hesperia, and the Lewis Center for Educational Research, a nonprofit group in neighboring Apple Valley, which oversees two charters, has experience turning around an academically low-performing school.

Both organizations acknowledge the challenges if they are chosen to manage a new charter school at Desert Trails, perhaps most notably the prospect of trying to repair bitter divisions among parents in Adelanto.

“Anybody who’s looked at this situation has said it will be very rough,” said Rick Piercy, the president of the Lewis Center. “We’ve said this is a school that needs healing, not fighting. ... We know the folks in Adelanto. We’ve met the parents and the kids. Every student deserves to have a great school.”

Legal Uncertainty

Parent-trigger laws, which are now in place in seven states, typically allow a school to be converted to a charter school, closed, or restructured if a majority of parents sign a petition agreeing to take one of those steps.

Desert Trails Elementary, located northeast of Los Angeles, serves a disadvantaged, primarily Latino population. The battle over whether to convert it into a charter under the parent-trigger law has sparked a fierce and continuing battle in the community and drawn national attention.

In Adelanto, a group of parents known as the Desert Trails Parent Union, relying on California’s 2-year-old parent-trigger law, mounted an effort to overhaul their low-performing elementary school, which serves an impoverished, predominantly Latino population. Those parents eventually settled on having the school converted to a charter—a proposal that has drawn strong objections from some other parents and members of the community, who questioned the validity of the petition signatures collected.

The petitioners received a boost in July when a San Bernardino Superior Court judge ruled that the document was valid and ordered the 8,000-student Adelanto school district to begin soliciting charter school proposals. The parents began that process. But district officials resisted, arguing that the proposed charter conversion is not feasible and that the state parent-trigger law allows the school system to pursue other academic-improvement strategies at the school, such as increased instructional time, new technology, and a revamped curriculum.

A hearing on the case has been scheduled before a judge this week. Even as that legal battle unfolds, the parents who signed the charter petition say they will vote on selecting a charter operator on Oct. 18.

Debbie Tarver, the founder and executive director of the second finalist, LaVerne Elementary Preparatory Academy, was candid about the challenges in running a charter at Desert Trails. But she said she was also drawn to helping a school only a short drive from the one she now manages.

“I don’t believe in kids slipping through the cracks,” Ms. Tarver said. “There is a little bit of fear there. But I’m not a person who backs away from stuff, [and] I do believe in bringing people together.”

Opposition Remains

An opponent of the parent union’s plans, Adelanto school board President Carlos Mendoza, said the district would abide by a court decision mandating that a charter school take hold. But he contends the parent union greatly overstates local backing for the plan.

“The narrative has always been, ‘It’s the poor, small parents against the big, bad district,’ and that’s just not the case,” Mr. Mendoza said. “The majority of parents don’t want a charter. They want the reforms that are being implemented now.”

Three of Margarita Flamenco’s children attend Desert Trails, two of whom have special needs. The mother questions whether a charter operator would provide adequate services for students with disabilities. She said she will enroll her children at another school if a charter school takes hold, and she predicts other parents will also walk away.

“Parents are at the point where they don’t want to go there,” said Ms. Flamenco, who said a contingent of families “don’t trust the opposing side.”

Ms. Tarver said she envisions putting in place a “classical” academic model in Adelanto that is similar to the one currently in place at LaVerne Elementary, a K-8 school. The school places a strong emphasis on language development, history, and the integration of subjects, gradually leading students into more challenging and analytical work.

One of the charters overseen by the other applicant, the Lewis Center, is the Academy for Academic Excellence, a K-12 school in Apple Valley that serves 1,400 students and has a 2,600 waiting list, Mr. Piercy said. The Lewis Center partners with NASA and a number of universities, and it incorporates project-based learning into activities and curriculum at its schools, he said. The center proposes creating a similar academic environment at Desert Trails.

The Lewis Center has received a commitment from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a Houston-based philanthropy that takes an interest in K-12 issues, to support the charter conversion financially, if it goes forward.

Challenges Ahead

It’s not surprising that only a handful of charter operators expressed an interest in taking the reins in Adelanto, said Eric Premack, the executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center, a Sacramento-based organization that consults with charter operators. Many charter organizations would rather start a school from scratch than attempt to turn around an existing one and inherit its troubled history, he said.

Charter operators would be wary of becoming ensnared in an ongoing legal battle such as the one in Adelanto, and fearful that lingering opposition among a subset of parents would result in low enrollment or families not buying into a school with a new and unfamiliar philosophy, Mr. Premack added.

A new charter operator could be “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” he said. A school needs families to enroll their children, he said, but there’s a risk that some will “bring their opposition into the school.”

Ben Austin, the executive director of Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based group advising the parent union, said he was pleased with the charter applicants, and not especially surprised that more did not apply. The school’s relatively remote location in a desert community was almost certainly a factor in more operators not submitting offers, he said. But parents would have been unlikely to choose a charter organization from outside their area, anyway, Mr. Austin argued.

He also said it was clear to him that many charter operators lack the experience to turn around struggling schools, and don’t have an interest in refashioning schools through parent-trigger policies.

Contrary to some opinion, “charter operators are not enamored with the parent trigger,” Mr. Austin said. “It’s very hard work, and you have to do it under a national spotlight.” Starting a new school, he added, “is a much easier lift.”

Mr. Austin said he was confident that a charter would take hold in Adelanto and that parents—even those who might initially be skeptical—would be drawn to it.

“It will depend entirely if it’s a good school,” he said. “That’s the bottom line for any parent.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 2012 edition of Education Week as Two Suitors Emerge in ‘Parent Trigger’ Bid

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