What Happens After Fed-Up Parents Take Over a School

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.

Parent Revolution representatives say they want to foster more collaboration and minimize conflict. They point to four other Southern California parent unions that have used the parent-trigger process to achieve different types of reforms. At Weigand Elementary School in Watts, a parent-trigger campaign got the district to replace the principal despite teacher objections. Other efforts included a unique district-charter hybrid partnership at 24th Street Elementary in South Los Angeles, and convincing the district to let parents and teachers do a comprehensive needs assessment at Lennox Middle School just outside Inglewood: The school district’s superintendent formed an external team that worked with parents to identify the school’s strengths and weaknesses, and then developed a turnaround plan based on the findings.

“Every school can be a quality school, and every school should be,” said Diaz, the Adelanto mom who is now helping parents launch campaigns in other areas. “If we can reach more parents and educate more parents, then perhaps we can create a monumental shift in education.”

Parent Revolution is now working with about 15 other California parent unions. “It is now understood the law works,” said Everett, the Parent Revolution spokesman. “We are no longer in phase one.” In addition to California, Parent Revolution will be focusing resources on budding trigger efforts in Louisiana, he said.

Angel Barrett, lead instructional director for LAUSD elementary schools, said she’s encouraged by the early results of parent-trigger campaigns in the Los Angeles area. Students at 24th Street Elementary School, for instance, now benefit from a reinstated pre-kindergarten program, and a more fluid transition to middle school under the new charter school partnership. But she emphasized that it will take sustained work by educators and parents to see the changes through.

“The key is that the parent trigger is only the beginning, and we have to be very cognizant of ensuring that we continue to support the school,” Barrett said. “Just coming in and making a change, whether you change a principal or change the faculty—that’s an immediate action, but what happens on day two, day three, what happens six months later or a year later?”

“Parent trigger may be an impetus for change,” she said, “but what is the longer-term solution?”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

Presented by

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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