School Choice & Charters

School Born of California Parent-Trigger Law Opens Its Doors

By Sean Cavanagh — July 29, 2013 4 min read
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A new chapter in California’s, and the nation’s, relationship with “parent-trigger” laws begins today, as the first school to have come into being as a result of one those controversial policies opens its doors.

The Desert Trails Preparatory Academy, in Adelanto, Calif., welcomes students following a tumultuous process led by a group of parents determined to change the leadership and direction of what has been to date an academically struggling school.

The process of creating the new school roiled the community and created a legal battle, in which a judge ultimately ruled that the group of parents invoking the trigger policy had met the legal standards to go forward with their plans.

Parent-trigger laws typically allow for overhaul of a low-performing school, and potentially the removal of its administration and staff, if signatures can be collected from a majority of parents of children at the school who agree to take that step.

Backers of those plans see them as grassroots efforts to bring immediate and dramatic changes to schools that have resisted change and shown no signs of improving anytime soon. But detractors say trigger policies divide communities—they cite the Desert Trails fight as an example—and leave parents at the will of outside operators who potentially have little investment in producing a better school.

California was the first state in the country to approve a parent-trigger law, in 2010. The initial effort to use the state law to redesign an academically struggling school, in the Southern California community of Compton, disintegrated in political and legal turmoil.

But despite the fights on display in California, legislators in other states have been drawn to trigger policies. As of this spring, at least 25 states have considered parent-trigger policies, and seven of them have created laws establishing the policies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Schoolyear Kicks Off Early

In Adelanto, the effort to use the parent-trigger law to overhaul the former Desert Trails Elementary School was backed by a group of parents who led a petition drive calling for the school to be converted to a charter school. Another group of parents fought back, questioning the validity of those signatures.

Both sides in the fight had the backing of major players from outside the community: The original petitioners were supported by Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group that supports trigger policies, while opponents of the plan were bolstered by teachers’ unions.

After a judge in San Bernardino County, Calif., ruled that parents backing the school overhaul had collected enough signatures to carry out their plans, those same parents began looking for a charter-school operator to run the school.

They eventually settled on the Laverne Elementary Preparatory Academy, which operates a school in another, nearby Southern California community. Officials from the academy have been prepping the school for its opening since then.

The new schools’ early opening date—many schools around the country won’t open until weeks from now—is by design, Debbie Tarver, the CEO of the new school, told Education Week.

Tarver believes students lose too much academic knowledge during the summer months, and so wanted students at Desert Trails back in school early. At the other school, Laverne Elementary, where she is principal and CEO, students began school in July 15.

The projected enrollment count is 536 students, as judged by a most recent orientation meeting with parents, Tarver said. There are still openings at some grade levels, but others are already at capacity, so the school has started a waiting list, she said.

Desert Trails’ progress over the next year is likely to be closely scrutinized. Those who favor parent-trigger efforts are already touting the school’s opening as an example of communities setting academic overhauls in motion on their own terms.

Late last week, U.S. Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House education committee, participated in a press event with Desert Trails parents and other backers of the new school.

“When school districts and communities have failed to improve their schools, it is unconscionable to ask parents and their children to wait,” Miller said in a statement. “They have waited long enough. Parent trigger gives parents not just a voice, but a say in and involvement in the quality of their child’s school.”

Photo: The then-principal of Desert Trails Elementary, David Mobley, is handed 465 signatures last 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. --David Pardo/The Victor Valley Daily Press/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.