About nine months ago, at a small park playground a few hundred feet from their children’s struggling school, a group of parents chanted, cheered and delivered passionate speeches about their growing frustration with Desert Trails Elementary.
That Jan. 12 park rally — which drew a throng of camera crews and reporters from around the state to the tiny desert city of Adelanto, Calif. — marked the beginning of a bitter battle in the national spotlight. That was when the Desert Trails Parent Union announced its petition to use the so-called “parent trigger” law to force a major overhaul of a school. They hoped to become the first parent group in the nation to do so.
On Thursday, that same park is set to become a makeshift polling place where those parents will make history. With a court ruling last week permitting the vote to go forward, parents who signed the petition last winter now have the chance to cast a ballot on the charter school operator they want to take over their neighborhood school next fall. As permitted by law, the vote won’t include parents who opposed the charter conversion or declined to be part of the petition process.
“For the first time, a group of parents is going to take back power of the educations of their own kids and select a high-quality nonprofit to transform their failing school,” said Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles nonprofit that is bankrolling the parent union. The little local election, Austin said, represents a “monumental day for the parent power movement.” Parent Revolution estimates that less than 200 parents will be eligible to vote this week.
California’s Parent Empowerment Act of 2010 enables parents who collect signatures representing more than 50 percent of students to spur big reforms at a low-performing school, from firing the principal and half the staff to shutting it down.
More than 20 states have considered the controversial legislation, and seven states have passed versions of the parent trigger law. Well-funded advocacy groups, like Parent Revolution and StudentsFirst, are using the new feature film “Won’t Back Down” to galvanize support for parent trigger laws, and educators across the nation are paying close attention to the real-life version.
The Adelanto effort has fiercely divided the school community. Parents who opposed converting to a charter school launched a counter-campaign to get parents to retract their signatures supporting it, and nearly 100 parents did so. Each side has accused the other of harassment and intimidation.
The petitioning parents scored their latest victory in Victorville Superior Court on Oct. 12, when Judge John Vander Feer ruled that the Adelanto School District must let them press on with plans to convert Desert Trails into a charter school, effective fall of 2013. The judge’s decision reinforced a July 18 ruling by another judge who found the district couldn’t use the signature withdrawals to squash the charter petition.
“I’m feeling great,” said Doreen Diaz, a parent union organizer, as she headed to a “Won’t Back Down” screening shortly after leaving the courtroom Friday. “I’m ecstatic and happy that we’re vindicated once again.”
Diaz and fellow supporters are celebrating the legal win as a way to finally turn around Desert Trails, which ranks in the bottom third of California schools with similar demographics and has been on the federal watch list for failing schools for six consecutive years.
“We’ve gained strength, and we can only get stronger,” parent union member Jeffrey Hancock said Monday on a press conference call. “Hopefully it will get better for every school that’s failing.”
The smaller, more loosely organized group of parents opposing the conversion has called for less radical reform and working with current administrators and teachers. Parent Lori Yuan argues that “parents who believe that a charter is going to magically make their kids score higher, be smarter and achieve success” will be disappointed.
Adelanto School Board President Carlos Mendoza said while he’s not “opposed to charter schools per se,” he’s concerned that the looming conversion will disrupt school changes already in progress. Before the latest court ruling, the school board had decided it was too late to implement a charter school this year. Instead, they created an “alternative governance council” co-led by parents and funded a new literacy curriculum called Success for All.
“I’m just hoping that becoming a charter school doesn’t undo all of that,” Mendoza said. He also questions what the lack of job security will do to teacher morale. Under a new charter operator, teachers would have to reapply for positions at the school and enter into non-union contracts.
Parents will choose from two local charter operators who submitted proposals: the Lewis Center for Educational Research, which runs a K-12 charter school in Apple Valley focused on project-based learning; and LaVerne Elementary Preparatory Academy, a K-8 school in Hesperia that partners with the University of La Verne.
The parent union leadership is telling voters it prefers the operator that runs LaVerne Elementary, which is less than half the size of Desert Trails’ roughly 600 students. Diaz said she likes that LaVerne’s proposal included a more formal structure for parent involvement, and that its school has demographics that resemble Desert Trails, a predominately Hispanic and black school where 100 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Thursday’s vote isn’t the final step in the conversion process. Charter schools are taxpayer-funded, independently operated and overseen by the agency that authorizes them. In California, that agency is typically a local school district governing board.
The charter operator that gets the most Desert Trails parent votes will submit a proposal to the Adelanto School District. In the past few years, the district has approved one charter school and denied at least two others, mostly over concerns about brand-new operators with poor financial plans.
As Parent Revolution helps Desert Trails parents advance, its organizers say they’ve also been working with a handful of other parent groups who may soon launch their own campaigns.
“There are parents organizing, mostly in Los Angeles but also in areas across California, to do the same thing,” Austin said. “My one hope about the next round of parent trigger campaigns is that they can be more collaborative.”
This story also appeared on NBCNews.com.