Board’s Charter Selection Ratifies Parent Union Group’s School Takeover

ADELANTO–The Adelanto Elementary School District’s board voted unanimously January 8 to approve converting severely underperforming Desert Trails Elementary School into a charter academy, more than 20 months after a group of parents at the school launched a school takeover bid using California’s new and controversial parent trigger law.
The school board’s acceptance of LaVerne Preparatory Academy as the operator of Desert Trails beginning next September prepares the way for the first ever full employment of the Parent Empowerment Act, authored by former state senator Gloria Romero and passed by the legislature in 2010. The Parent Empowerment Act  enables a majority of parents at a school at which students score  as low-performers on state academic tests to force a district to implement significant reforms, ranging from replacing the principal and up to half the staff to reopening the school as a charter academy. That process is known by the colloquialism “parent trigger.”
The school board’s endorsement of the takeover plan is a reversal of the initial resistance the district administration and school board made to the parent trigger effort.
Pursuant to the Parent Empowerment Act, a parent union was formed by parents at Desert Trails Elementary in 2011, in large measure at the instigation of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Parent Revolution, which is devoted to challenging the traditional authority of school districts.
On January 12, 2012 the parent union submitted 466 signatures on petitions asking the district to undertake a set of what the parents union maintained would  be reforms at the academically challenged  school.
Those petitions, which called upon the district to sack the school’s principal, David Mobley, and surrender to the school’s parents authority in hiring his successor, infuse in the new principal hiring authority for the school’s faculty, reduce class sizes and increase the number of school days and instructional hours, and include more science, history and art in the curriculum, were sufficient to meet the requirements of the Parent Empowerment Act, parent union members believed. The parent union subsequently modified that agenda to request that the school be converted to a charter academy, offering an intensified curriculum.
A group of parents opposed to the parent takeover of the school formed and went to work obtaining rescissions of many of the signatures on the petitions.
In February 2012, the school district, to whom the parent trigger petitions had been entrusted, announced that it had validated the signatures of only 301 of the 466 signatures on the petitions and declared that the parent trigger petitions were thus 20 signatures short of the 321 needed. The Desert Trails Parent Union, represented by Mark Holscher, a lawyer with the firm on retainer with Parent Revolution, Los Angeles-based Kirkland & Ellis, on April 5, 2012 on behalf of five of the members of the parents union – Doreen Diaz, Kathy Duncan, Teresa Rogers, Olivia Zamarripa and Bartola Del Villar – filed a petition for a writ of mandate and a complaint in Victorville Superior Court seeking a court order that the district verify the signatures and allow the Parent Trigger process to advance.
Holscher maintained that the district did not make an impartial tally of the signatures and “engaged in a systematic effort to invalidate the petitions.”
Judge Steve Malone, to whom the case was assigned, restored 97 of the signatures tossed out by the district. Malone ruled last summer that the district did not have the authority or a basis in law to discount signatures that proponents gathered and the district had abused its discretion in doing so. “Once the petition was submitted, the district and the trustees lacked authority to reject 97 signatures from the petition based on subsequent extrinsic evidence of rescission,” Malone ruled.  “The district and trustees have a mandatory legislative duty to include those signatures.”
By his ruling Malone raised the number of qualified signatures to well above 50 percent. He ordered the Adelanto Elementary School District to accept the petition as filed by the parent union within 30 days and seek proposals from charter school operators to take over Desert Trails.
Even so, the district balked at the parent union’s proposed direction, and delays prevented the school district from converting Desert Trails Elementary into a charter school at the initiation of the 2012-13 academic year in September. In the same time frame, the district’s superintendent, Darin Brawley, resigned. The leaders of the parent union considered several charter school proposals and in October gravitated toward and then chose LaVerne Preparatory Academy, which is operated by Debra Tarver in Hesperia.
LaVerne Preparatory Academy scored among the highest ranking schools in San Bernardino County on Academic Performance tests administered to the state’s schools and school districts, registering 911 out of 1,000 on what is known as the Academic Performance Index. In San Bernardino County, the average index is 767. Desert Trails this fall scored 699 on that index.
By its 4-0 vote, the school board agreed to have the district relinquish control of the campus to LaVerne Preparatory for a three-year period after the current school year ends in June. Tarver and her faculty will move into the Desert Trails this summer.
At the school board meeting on Tuesday, most of the parents in attendance were in a triumphant, almost giddy mood as a result of the board’s action.
For the last seven years, Desert Trails students have had the lowest scores within the district on state standardized academic tests. The school’s students have also collectively scored in the bottom 10 percent of all California elementary schools. In the school’s 2011 graduating sixth grade class 72 percent of students were not proficient with the English language and 70 percent were not proficient in math. Two-thirds of last year’s crop of graduating sixth-graders were unable to read or do math at grade level. Since 2007 Desert Trails has been classified as a failing school. Parents and school board members expressed hope that Tarver and LaVerne Preparatory would be able to apply their formula to bring the school’s students up to par with the norm.
Yet there is remaining skepticism that the parent trigger process in general and in particular the way it is being applied in Adelanto will have the salutary effect that is hoped for. Indeed, there have already been indications that Tarver will experience a severe challenge in uprating academic performance at Desert Trails.
A central component of Tarver’s approach is engaging parents in their children’s educational process.  Whether Tarver can achieve that component at Desert Trails is under question. Whereas 466 parents at the school signed the petition to move forward with the parent trigger process in late 2011 and January 2012, when the parents union held its election in October 2012 to determine which of the charter schools that had submitted proposals should be chosen to educate their children, only 53 parents participated in that vote. Moreover, a significant number of the students at Desert Trails Elementary have parents whose first language is not English and nearly all of the instructional materials used by Tarver and LaVerne Preparatory are in English.
Board president Christine Turner said that nonetheless she is “hopeful” LaVerne Preparatory will be able to turn the situation at Desert Trails around.

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