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The real-life version of “Won’t Back Down” — the recent movie that promoted the controversial “parent trigger” law — appears to finally be getting a happier ending than the box office flop.

California’s Parent Empowerment Act of 2010
Parents at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif. wait for the board to vote. (Photo by Natasha Lindstrom)

Parent union members at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif., have become the first in the nation to convert their struggling neighborhood school into a charter school.

On a 4-0 vote Tuesday night, the Adelanto School District board approved the charter school operator selected by the Desert Trails Kids First parent union, LaVerne Elementary Preparatory Academy. It took the parent union nearly two years and a bitter legal battle to get there.

“I’m excited. I’m happy. I’m in tears — I’m holding them back,” parent union leader Cynthia Ramirez said shortly after the vote. “I can finally sleep at night.”

California’s Parent Empowerment Act of 2010, known as the parent trigger law, enables parents representing more than 50 percent of students to sign a petition to force major reforms on a low-performing school, from firing the principal and half the staff to a charter conversion. At least seven states have versions of parent trigger laws on the books, and parent trigger bills have been considered in some 20 others.

“The idea behind this movement is not simply to find and save every single failing school in the country through community organizing,” said Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles-based advocacy group that trained and bankrolled the Adelanto parents. “The idea is shifting the paradigm and giving parents the power to do what’s in the best interest of their kids.”

Tuesday’s vote was quick and unanimous, and followed by a brief recess to let the parent trigger supporters celebrate. Members of the parent union and Parent Revolution exchanged hugs with each other, board members and district officials.

California’s Parent Empowerment Act of 2010
Parents hug after the vote. (Photo by Natasha Lindstrom)

“When the cameras are gone and the newspapers are gone, we’re still here and we’re going to work this out,” said Board President Christine Turner.

It was a drastically different scene than so many of the heated school board meetings last spring, when the board twice rejected the parent trigger petition amid a counter-campaign to get parents to withdraw their signatures. The smaller, more loosely organized group of parents opposing the parent trigger argued that some parents had been misled when they signed the initial petition.

Both sides accused the other of harassment and intimidation. The parent union argued the opposition was fueled by teachers’ union members.

The board’s rejection prompted the parent union to sue the district. In July, a Victorville Superior Court judge ruled in the parent union’s favor and said that parents couldn’t withdraw their signatures.

In the fall, the district tried to implement curriculum changes and an alternative governance committee comprised of parents in place of a charter conversion. But in October, another judge ruled the district must let the charter conversion press on.

“We do know what we want for our children,” said Doreen Diaz, who spearheaded the formation of the parent union. She’s since pulled her daughter, who is about to go into middle school, out of Desert Trails and stepped down from the union. “We proved that parents can make a difference.”

The opposing parents didn’t show up to speak at Tuesday’s meeting. One of the opposition leaders, Maggie Flamenco, said she pulled her children out of Desert Trails on Monday. She and fellow skeptics questioned the politics behind the trigger push, and the motives of Parent Revolution, which is backed by major funders like the Gates and Walton Family foundations.

The new Desert Trails Preparatory Academy charter school will be run by LaVerne Preparatory Academy, which runs a K-8 school with similar demographics in the nearby city of Hesperia. In October, the parent union held a vote open only to the parents who signed the petition to select from two charter operators. Fifty of the 53 parents who turned out chose LaVerne.

Parent union leaders said they have high hopes for LaVerne, which scored a 911 on California’s 1,000-point Academic Performance Index last year, compared to Desert Trails’ score of 699. Based on test scores, Desert Trails ranks in the bottom 10 percent in the state and has been stuck on the federal watch list for failing schools for more than six years.

The board trustees, including two newly elected members, told the meeting’s audience that they were impressed with the levels of student engagement they saw while visiting LaVerne’s Hesperia campus. The school emphasizes classical literature, Latin and music classes, and it partners with the University of LaVerne to help train new teachers.

“We’ve gone back to the basics, and we’ve raised the bar,” said LaVerne Elementary Principal Debbie Tarver.

All students and their siblings will be guaranteed spots at the school, but every teacher and staff member will have to file new applications if they want to keep working there.

Tarver said she plans to start distributing fliers to parents about the charter conversion and will be holding informational meetings as soon as next week.

The school board did place a few conditions on the approval. By March 1, the operator must send proof of the new charter academy’s registered nonprofit status, along with revised budget plans in case the academy doesn’t get the state grant funds it’s counting on.

Tuesday’s victory could be a boon for other budding parent trigger attempts throughout California and other states, with several new bills up for discussion in state legislatures in coming months.

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