Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif. has been on the federal watch list for failing schools for six years, with only one-third of sixth-graders at grade level in reading and math. But come next August, it will be transformed into a charter school, thanks to a small group of parents who for the first time enacted major reform under the state’s controversial parent trigger law.
A first of its kind for the nation, California’s Parent Empowerment Act of 2010, or the trigger law, allows parents to force overhauls on low-performing schools. If half or more of the parents at any systemically failing school in California sign a petition demanding change, they can sanction reforms, including firing the principal and half the staff or converting to a charter. Seven states have similar laws, and 20 more have legislation in the works.
Desert Trails ranks in the bottom third of California schools with similar demographics, with its achievement score at 699, out of a 1,000-point scale called the Academic Performance Index. The score fell by 13 points just this year. Every student qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch, and one-quarter of students don’t speak English at home, according to the state Department of Education.
“My daughter is not learning there,” says Doreen Diaz, Desert Trails Parent Union coordinator who spearheaded the reform. “It’s unacceptable that children are not being taught everything they need to get them ready for their future.”
After months of court battles, 53 parents chose LaVerne Elementary Preparatory Academy as their charter operator.
Principal David Mobley says local control should be upheld. Last year, the school implemented a comprehensive reform effort called Success for All. Suspensions are down and attendance is up. If given the chance to continue, the school would turn around, he says. “There are some amazing charter schools out there, and some that are really struggling, just like public schools,” says Mobley. “Though we’ve had some issues and concerns, we need to come together and fix those problems, and not use public education as a political place to make a point.”
But supporters say it was and is necessary. “Their vote sends a powerful message to parents across America that they too can have a direct voice in reclaiming and transforming failing schools,” said Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, the group that lobbied for the law and aided the parents, in a statement. “No parent need ever feel intimidated when they look at what the parents of Desert Trails have achieved.”
The charter proposal was presented in late October, and the district will have 60 days to accept or deny it. If denied, the parent union will appeal to the county, and then to the state.
For more information on trigger laws, visit www.ncsl.org/issues-research/educ/state-parent-trigger-laws.aspx.