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.”
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.
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.