California Parents Pull Trigger on Elementary School

Published February 1, 2012

Parents of students at a failing elementary school in the Southern California desert city of Adelanto are the second group to exercise their rights under the state’s Parent Trigger law.

Members of the Desert Trails Elementary parent union say if the Adelanto Elementary School District refuses to make certain changes, they intend to convert the school to an independent charter.

“Either [district officials] work with us, or they let us turn it into a community charter school,” said Doreen Diaz, a parent and lead organizer with the Desert Trails Parent Union.

Parents say they have tried to work with the school and district officials to improve the school, only to be rebuffed. They want the right to select the school’s principal and empower the principal to hire and assign staff, control the school’s budget, and change curriculum as necessary.

All of those changes would require the Adelanto District Teachers’ Association to waive its current collective bargaining agreement.

Large Majority Sign
About 100 parents rallied on January 12 at a park adjacent to the school before delivering several thick binders full of petitions in a red Radio Flyer wagon to Desert Trails Principal David Mobley.

Mobley, who had only been on the job for three months, said he believed parents, teachers, and district officials were “all working toward the same ends.” But he said he worried the Parent Trigger could divert limited resources from schools to litigation.

“We should be spending money improving education for kids, not tying things up in court,” Mobley said.

About 70 percent of parents at the school signed the petition, parent union organizers said. Under state regulations that took effect last fall, school district officials have until February 21 to verify or reject the parents’ petition.

School’s Record of Failure
Under California’s Parent Trigger law, if at least half of the eligible parents at a persistently failing school sign a petition, the local education authority must do one of the following: Shut down the school and allow students to enroll in higher-performing public schools nearby; restart the school as an independent charter; or implement the “turnaround,” “transformation,” or “alternative governance” models set forth by state law and federal Race to the Top regulations.

Desert Trails, which serves about 650 students in kindergarten through sixth grade, has failed to meet state standards for six years. The school ranks among the worst performing elementary schools in San Bernardino County and is in the bottom 10 percent of schools in the state, according to the California Department of Education.

The school’s Academic Performance Index score for the 2010-11 school year was 706. An API ranking of 799 or lower is considered failing. Just 34 percent of Desert Trails students are proficient in reading, and 46 percent are proficient in math, state statistics show.

District Resisted Change
The Desert Trails petition could become the first successful test of California’s 2010 Parent Empowerment Act. The first effort, by parents at an elementary school in Compton, failed last year when a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled the parents’ petitions did not comply with state law.

Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based school reform organization, helped win passage of the state Parent Trigger law and helped organize parents in Compton and Adelanto.

Gabe Rose, the group’s assistant executive director, said the Adelanto parents are successfully leveraging the trigger to “force the district to the bargaining table.”

“The parents weren’t getting anywhere with the district until they collected these signatures,” explained Rose, suggesting the parents could withdraw the petition if district officials and the local teachers union make concessions.

“The union can waive the contract, or the school will become a community charter. Either way, the parents win,” Rose said.

District Rejected Demands
In letters to the school district and at the January rally, parents detailed allegations of bullying, poorly maintained facilities, and teacher indifference.

“The goal of a great school for our children is primary,” Diaz wrote to Adelanto Superintendent Darin Brawley in December. “The preference to keep the school within the District and teachers covered by the contract is secondary.”

Holly Odenbaugh, a Desert Trails parent whose daughter attends kindergarten, said she learned how bad the situation was at the school on the first day of classes this fall. “The teacher told me it wasn’t worth it for her to come to school anymore,” Odenbaugh recalled.

Odenbaugh was among a dozen parents who met on November 21 with Adelanto Assistant Superintendent Ross Swearingen, where they presented a lengthy list of demands for reform.

“We respectfully decline to meet all of the demands as they were presented,” Swearingen wrote in a December letter. “While we are confident that many of the demands are already in place at the school and others will be implemented, … some are not possible without causing harm to other schools in the district.”

Other Organizations Forming
Parents launched their petition drive after receiving the district’s response.

The Desert Trails Parent Union is one of several such groups to organize since last summer, according to Parent Revolution spokeswoman Linda Serrato. Around 10 such unions have formed and registered as nonprofit organizations with California’s Secretary of State.


Internet Info: 
The Heartland Institute’s Parent Trigger Resource Page:

 “Parent Power Handbook,” Parent Revolution:

Image by John Stavely