A historic first for K-12 school reform might be chronicled tomorrow in the small desert town of Adelanto, two hours east of Los Angeles.
If the Adelanto Unified Elementary School District verifies a parent petition to overhaul its lowest-performing campus, Desert Trails Elementary, this will mark the first time that a powerful new California law called the "Parent Trigger" has successfully been pulled.
The same feat was attempted at McKinley Elementary in Compton a year ago, but ...
... due to fierce resistance from the school's Parent Teacher Association and district officials (while the law wasn't fully solidified), that petition is still tied up in court.
The effort was doomed when Parent Revolution, the Bill Gates-backed group that had initially convinced Compton parents to rebel against their kids' underperforming school district, was painted as a front for corporate interests.
Aka charter schools.
Trigger-pullers at Desert Trails, who receive guidance and resources from Parent Revolution, learned from those mistakes. L.A. Weekly has observed it firsthand: Mothers on the "parent union" have been extremely cautious about explaining the Trigger's intent in full while collecting signatures door-to-door, and about little things like dating and stapling each page.
Yet right on cue, one day before the district is set to give its stamp of approval or rejection on the Trigger, the Los Angeles Times drops a painfully familiar story about a growing opposition effort at Desert Trails. No, really -- reporter Teresa Watanabe might as well have used her year-old piece about Compton's McKinley Elementary as a Mad Lib template, and just subbed in different proper nouns.
Compare and contrast:
"Effort to convert Compton school to charter draws fire: Some are withdrawing signatures given under the 'parent-trigger' law to make school a charter, saying they were intimidated or misled."
"'Parent trigger' campaign divides families at troubled Adelanto elementary school: Some angry parents want to remove their names from petitions seeking charter status before the school board votes."
But the giant difference, in the case of Desert Trails, is that the steering committee of moms behind the Trigger has no interest in bringing in an established charter operator. About a year ago, the town of Adelanto had a terrible experience with a new charter campus, so the entire community (including the parent union) is very much opposed to letting another outside company take over.
Doreen Diaz, who heads the Desert Trails parent union, says her group's ideal situation would be if the district worked with parents to create a more flexible restaffing and restructuring system at Desert Trails.
But Diaz says the district was initially very dismissive of their demands for change. So they created a second petition, asking for a complete restart under a yet-to-be-created, community-based charter called Desert Trails Kids First.
"It was never our intent to take anything away from anybody," says Diaz today. "It's just about getting what's best for our children."
The 70 percent of Desert Trails parents who signed the Trigger actually approved both petitions: the one asking to restart the school under the district's control, and the one asking the district to turn things over entirely to Desert Trails Kids First.
Linda Serrato of Parent Revolution says that the latter had to be filed before the former, both as a leverage point for bargaining and because starting a community-based charter school from scratch would be a much longer process. (Parents are shooting for fall 2012.)
But if Diaz and the other moms have their way, it won't necessarily come to that.
"I'm optimistic that we can come to an understanding" with the district, says Diaz. "Our [preferred] option is to keep [Desert Trails] in district."
The Times profiles two parents who feel they were duped into approving a charter school:
Julie Rodriguez wanted improvement -- but not a wholesale change of staff -- at her children's school in the High Desert community of Adelanto. So late last year she signed what she thought was a petition, circulated by parents she considered friends, for more programs and better teachers.
But she learned that what she actually signed was a petition to convert Desert Trails Elementary School into a charter campus, a change she says she had specifically told organizers she didn't want. Furious, Rodriguez has rescinded her signature and is working to help other parents do the same before the Adelanto school board votes Tuesday on whether to accept the petition.
"They lied to me," Rodriguez said of supporters, "and now it's a big old mess."
... Lori Yuan, an anti-petition parent who has two children at Desert Trails, said she wants to give [the new principal, David Mobley,] a chance to turn around the school without the upheaval of a charter conversion. Mobley, she said, has a track record of improving low-performing schools and has helped heal the division left in the wake of the previous principal.
Union reps at the California Teachers Association are not explicitly behind this rescission effort -- just as they weren't in Compton -- but their paw prints are all over it.
The Hesperia Teachers Association, just over the 15 freeway, backed a recent rally to "Save Desert Trails Elementary." And a local paper, the High Desert Daily Press, quotes a CTA official as saying some parents "have expressed that they do not feel that they were given all of the information in order to make a well-informed decision."
Only three parents have officially rescinded their signatures, according to the district.
Diaz (of the parent union) sees the opposition as "more of a staff-support type of a movement" -- because no matter which petition comes to fruition, Desert Trails teachers will have to reapply for their jobs. Thanks to their stiff CTA contracts, that would be almost impossible without a Trigger.
An ex-principle at Desert Trails recently told the Weekly that in his experience, real change at the school would require a total shake-up:
Larry Lewis, a former Desert Trails principal who left for medical reasons, says he tried to set higher teaching standards but, faced with protective teachers' union contracts, his "hands were tied from being able to hold personnel accountable."
He says some teachers bullied others for going beyond what the union contract requires -- any extra effort such as an after-school meeting or a field trip.
"No one wants to go against the teacher core ... and be ostracized," Lewis says.
This ancient struggle between old-fashioned unions and at-all-costs reformers has long been the No. 1 obstacle of controversial parent-empowerment laws.
But at Desert Trails, a group of headstrong moms might just be able to use the Trigger as a tool to rise out of those cliched trenches -- and instead make the debate about the ideal learning environment for California's frighteningly undereducated kids.
If Adelanto Unified agrees to compromise -- opening its worst campus up to change that could otherwise only go down under a charter operator -- this really could be a historic first, and a step away from the massive waste of time that is the politicized charters-versus-unions debate.
Despite the negative campaigning at Desert Trails/its dramatic coverage by the Times, Adelanto Unified seems optimistic about those talks. From a February 10 statement:
"Over the past few weeks the District has met several times with parents of students attending the Desert Trails Elementary School and discussed concepts and ideas that further the mutual goals of these parents and the District. These mutual goals include improvements to ensure that Desert Trails and every other school in our District offer our students and their families the very best educational opportunities we can provide. The meetings and discussions have been positive and productive, and have been conducted in an atmosphere of mutual respect and cooperation."