What Happens After Fed-Up Parents Take Over a School

The district now offers a free nine-week class designed to teach low-income and immigrant parents how to navigate the public school system. Nearly 400 parents graduated from the Parent Institute for Quality Education course last spring. DeBlieux convenes a parents’ superintendent council each month, when she discusses issues with two parent representatives per school.

“That type of engagement is what this movement is all about,” said Derrick Everett, spokesman for Parent Revolution. “If our working with parents pushes districts to engage more with parents, to provide them with more access to resources, then that is a win.”

At risk of losing state funding to the charter conversion, the district offered parents more options. Just as the Desert Trails charter school opened in July, the school board voted to open its boundaries, so that students can attend any school parents choose in the district. “We want YOU,” the old Desert Trails district website says, urging parents to follow their former principal, David Mobley, to West Creek Elementary four miles away with free busing, or to choose another district-run school.

“I’m going to be honest: I want all my kids to come to me because I believe, as we continue to train teachers, we are providing the education they deserve,” said DeBlieux, who took the district’s helm at the end of the trigger battle. “We want you. We are making a difference. We are a whole new team.”

The new Desert Trails has 552 students, including about 380 students who attended the school last year. Students wear uniforms and are referred to as “scholars.” The new curriculum includes an emphasis on the classics and Latin, and class sizes are no larger than 25 students. The school has a longer year and extended days but only four days of school a week, with professional development for teachers on Fridays.

All 26 teachers are new to the school. They use an educational model called differentiated instruction, which aims to teach students at their own pace, letting the best students move on more quickly to higher-level work. Four teachers have moved from a nearby charter school operated by the same company to mentor the rest of the faculty. A full-time mentor also rotates between the two schools.

Desert Trails’ former teachers, who would have had to reapply for a job there and surrender their union benefits, have been reassigned to other district schools. Every former teacher who wanted a unionized position was offered one, the district says, though they’d previously been issued temporary pink slips in case the district couldn’t afford to do so.

“It left a bitter taste in a lot of Adelanto teachers,” said Adelanto District Teachers Association President Hector Anderson. “They didn’t know where they were going to go, whether they would have jobs.”

Parent volunteer participation is up, the new school leaders say. The Desert Trails Parent Union still has about 40 members and continues to meet weekly, and eventually a parent is supposed to be appointed to serve on the school’s board of directors.

“Without their parents, students are not going to be successful,” said Desert Trails teacher Elfie Landa, who was pleased to see 100 percent of her kindergartners’ parents show up on time for the last round of parent-teacher conferences.

Tarver said she has an open-door policy for parents, and most of her staff is bilingual, an asset to parents who don’t speak much English. Nearly 30 percent of students at the school are English learners.

Asked to explain what they like about the overhauled Desert Trails, some parents cite a more welcoming environment and better relationships with teachers. “You can just feel it,” several parents said on a recent afternoon as they waited in their cars at the student pick-up zone.

“The classrooms are completely changed—they’re motivating and positive,” Ramirez said. “The minute that you walk in there, it’s a different environment. As soon as you see these teachers, you see the politeness, you see the kindness, you see the respect.”

Charlene Booth, who has a 6-year-old daughter at the school, said she likes her child’s teacher and appreciates the consistent behavior policy at the new Desert Trails. Her daughter earns a colored sticker each day that marks how well she’s behaved: Green means great; blue means a child acted up enough to be sent home early.  (No students have been suspended or expelled since the school opened in late July, Tarver said.)

Some community members question whether the parent trigger was the only way to bring about those changes.

“It put a wedge between the parents and the community,” said Adelanto School Board Trustee Christine Turner. She believes the campaign was distracting, making it harder on teachers to improve student achievement. She pointed to Desert Trails dropping 52 points on its Academic Performance Index score in the 2012-2013 school year. “You can’t do business like that; you can’t teach like that.”

At least one former Parent Revolution supporter has now turned against the advocacy group. Joe Morales, who has two children attending Desert Trails, accused the nonprofit organizers of promising parents money, help with obtaining citizenship, lavish trips to make speaking appearances, and even a movie deal for their work. He said those alleged incentives, which he can’t prove, were dangled before parents around Hollywood’s release of Won’t Back Down, a fictional movie starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. The talk of money and fame died down once it was clear the movie was a box-office flop, Morales said.

Parent Revolution flatly denies making any financial promises to parents in exchange for their support. The nonprofit is open about funding the Desert Trails petition campaign, including leasing a five-bedroom home to serve as the parent union’s headquarters. Two paid Parent Revolution staffers are mothers from parent-trigger campaigns, including Doreen Diaz, a Desert Trails parent whose son has now gone on to middle school. Parent Revolution now has 33 staffers and a $4.5 million 2014 budget, financed by major education reform players such as the Bill & Melinda Gates, Walton Family, and Wasserman foundations. (The Gates and Wasserman foundations are among the funders of The Hechinger Report.)

“There’s not one shred of evidence to indicate anything other than we’ve been working by the book,” said Everett, the Parent Revolution spokesman. “There is more scrutiny on our small organization than any comparable nonprofit that I know of. Over time the actual success on the ground will serve as a counterpoint to any wild conspiracies that are out there, and it will be less about Parent Revolution and more about the role that parents play in changing their children’s futures.”

Allegations made about activists on both sides of the trigger debate at other schools prompted the Los Angeles Unified School Board to adopt parent trigger guidelines to ensure future campaigns are transparent, and to prohibit either side from using incentives or intimidation to win or sway parent support.

Morales said he is pleased with the new charter operator in Adelanto, but said he wouldn’t go through the trigger process if he had the option of doing it all over again. He’s cut ties with parents he once considered good friends because of it.

“They brainwashed a lot of us into believing that we needed them and the parent trigger to successfully transform the school,” he said.

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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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