What Happens After Fed-Up Parents Take Over a School

A new California law lets parents petition to transform a public school into a charter school.
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Parents pass out fliers in opposition to the parent trigger campaign at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif. in February 2012. (David Pardo, Daily Press)

ADELANTO, Calif. — Chrissy Guzman chucked the old bottle of paint across the classroom, aiming for the large trash bin that the custodian had wheeled in earlier that summer day.

As she and fellow parent volunteer Lori Yuan cleared out the PTA meeting room, the two mothers vented their frustration over the looming takeover of the district-owned campus by an outside charter operator. They lamented losing their neighborhood school, Desert Trails Elementary School, to a controversial education law they’d fought so hard against: the so-called parent trigger.

Guzman tossed another bottle toward the garbage—only this time the lid flew off midair, splattering paint all over.

“Oops, I missed,” she said jokingly.

That’s when they “got carried away,” the women would later tell the police.

The two women threw the rest of the paint bottles at the walls, the windows and the carpeted floor. Then they squirted ketchup and mustard all over, speckling chairs, desks, a stainless steel sink, window blinds, and even ceiling tiles with the sticky mixture of condiments and paint.

That night, Guzman told her husband she felt remorseful for acting so childish. 

She and Yuan returned to the classroom around 8 a.m. the next day and started cleaning. But 30 minutes in, police arrived and told them to stop and go home. School district officials instructed the custodian to leave the mess as it was, and to take photos. Room 32 had become a crime scene. 

Seven months later, both women face felony vandalism charges that carry maximum sentences of three years in prison, with the district seeking reimbursement for nearly $7,700 in damages.

The alleged vandalism incident, as described in a police report filed by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Victor Valley station, gives a glimpse into just how contentious the parent-trigger process became in the small Mojave Desert town of Adelanto, Calif., a city of 32,000 people about 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

Yuan and Guzman, who pleaded not guilty to the vandalism charges, are set to return to San Bernardino County’s Victorville Superior Court on Monday for their preliminary hearing. Their attorneys claim the charges were filed only because of the women’s roles in the controversial school transition.

Desert Trails is the first test case of California’s Parent Empowerment Act. The law enables parents to force a major overhaul of a low-performing public school if a majority of parents sign a petition. Since California passed its parent trigger in 2010, at least seven other states have adopted similar laws, and forms of the legislation have been considered in more than two dozen others. Georgia and Tennessee are among states poised to debate parent-trigger proposals this year.

The Adelanto parents succeeded in invoking the trigger law and getting the board to approve a new charter operator on January 8, 2013. Their victory followed an 18-month campaign riddled with bureaucratic and legal challenges, and allegations of fraud and harassment.

The fight pitted parents against teachers, school board members, and other parents. The Desert Trails Parent Union ran its petition campaign with the guidance and financial backing of Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles nonprofit formed to help parents use the trigger law. Yuan and Guzman spearheaded a more loosely organized group of parents and teachers opposed to the trigger campaign. They dismissed the parent-trigger law as a way for national education reform groups to exert their influence at a local level.

But so far, the transition has been much less dramatic than the process to make it happen. Halfway through its first school year under charter management, the newly named Desert Trails Preparatory Academy has retained a majority of the neighborhood students. The healing process has begun for the community.

“We’re just trying to move forward,” said Laura Carevic, chief business officer of the Adelanto School District. “I think that there are still people out in the community that are struggling with it because it’s very emotional for them. I think when you move into a neighborhood, you have ownership of that school, and basically they look at this as something that was taken away from them.”

When the parent union launched its campaign in June 2011, Desert Trails had been on the federal watch list for underperforming schools for five straight years. In the 2010-2011 school year, 70 percent of the school’s sixth-graders failed to reach proficiency in math, and 72 percent failed to test proficient in English. Desert Trails was also plagued by inconsistent leadership, churning through three principals in five years. Many students would come and go midway through the school year amid bleak economic circumstances. Adelanto’s workforce was hit hard by the 2008 housing bust and ensuing recession, and the local unemployment rate climbed to nearly 22 percent by 2011. 

“Desert Trails was not succeeding. It was failing its students. It’s out there; it’s not a secret,” Adelanto School District Superintendent Lily Matos DeBlieux said. “We applaud parents that become partners in their kids’ educations–that’s what we’re seeking. But [parent trigger] is not the best way to do it.”

Indeed, when they started campaigning, the parent leaders said they didn’t want a charter school. Instead, they sought to use the threat of a charter conversion as a negotiating tool to work out a plan that kept the school under district control. Parents asked for the right to hire a principal who had full control over hiring and firing his faculty as well as the school curriculum.

But talks with district officials fizzled within a few months, and the parent union submitted the petition calling for a charter conversion. Ultimately, 53 parents voted on the nonprofit operator that took over the school.

So now the question is: Will the new leadership prove to be the change the parents wanted?

“We have high expectations. We’ve raised the bar,” said Debra Tarver, executive director of Desert Trails Preparatory Academy. “We’ve seen major, major progress…since the beginning of the year.”

The parents who led the push to turn around the elementary school say they’re happy with the overhaul so far. They also credit the parent trigger process with leading to changes at the district’s other schools. They say the law gives parents leverage and sends a warning to administrators and school board members about the consequences of failing to act when a school is under-performing. If bureaucrats get complacent, parents just may wrest away one of your schools–and the public money that goes with it.

“I think that because of the trigger law, how it empowered us, they are no longer dealing with the average parent that just drops off their kids at school,” said Cynthia Ramirez, leader of the Desert Trails Parent Union, the group that led the trigger effort and a parent of two children at Desert Trails. “Now they’re dealing with a community that’s engaged. They’re dealing with parents that will actually stand up and do something about it.”

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Natasha Lindstrom writes about California education issues for The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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