Failure To Follow Through With Promised Reforms In Model Case
Could Doom Parent Empowerment Movement Statewide
More than three years after Adelanto garnered the dubious distinction of being the location where the controversial parent-trigger movement in California succeeded in having parents override educators in the administration of a local school, that experiment appears to have foundered amid indications that the charter school operation selected to operate in place of the admittedly failed grade school at the center of this undertaking is itself underperforming.
This episode in California educational history, in which the parent-trigger movement made its first significant advance, was problematic from the outset. By having a groundswell of parents, many of whom did not themselves speak English or possess basic academic skills, use the state legislature-sanctioned parent-trigger process, a so-called parent union in Adelanto commandeered control of Desert Trails Elementary School, installing a charter school operator who is now being paid $100,000 per year for her part-time efforts in administering the school. But that profiteering and continuing academic malaise among the school’s students has created a backlash that now threatens the continuation of the parent trigger process altogether.
In the meantime, little or no improvement in the educational opportunities in Adelanto has been made. Neither the state nor the relatively unsophisticated participants in Adelanto’s parent empowerment movement put in place objective empirical metrics to determine if taking control of the school targeted in the movement actually benefited the students there. And the Adelanto District lost as its superintendent a dedicated professional educator who elected to leave in the face of a movement that substituted a less-than-organized application of parental whim for his professional guidance.
Desert Trails Elementary School in the Adelanto Elementary School District was long one of the most severely underperforming schools in the state of California, where as late as 2011 three out of four students were documented by state-administered tests as not reading at grade level.
In late 2011, a parent union was formed by parents at Desert Trails Elementary, 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.
In January 2012 the parent union submitted 466 signatures on petitions asking the district to undertake a set of what the parent union maintained would be reforms at the academically challenged school.
The petition was based upon 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.”
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.
Those petitions 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.
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, 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 on behalf of five of the members of the parents union – Doreen Diaz, Kathy Duncan, Teresa Rogers, Olivia Zamarripa and Bartola Del Villar. 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 the district did not have the authority or a basis in law to discount signatures that proponents gathered and he ordered the Adelanto Elementary School District to accept the petition as filed by the parent union.
The parent union modified its demand to having the school converted to a charter academy offering an intensified curriculum. Delays prevented the school district from converting Desert Trails Elementary into a charter school at the initiation of the 2012-13 academic year.
The Adelanto Elementary School District thus became the first district in the state in which the “parent trigger” law had been successfully applied. In the same time frame, the district’s superintendent, Darin Brawley, resigned.
At about the same time as Dr. Lily Matos DeBlieux was hired as superintendent in January 2013, the school board voted to accept LaVerne Preparatory Academy as the operator of Desert Trails Elementary School.
Under DeBlieux, who took the helm as superintendent in March 2013, the district achieved having Desert Trails converted to a charter school, although that transition resulted in hard feelings and controversy, as well.
A central component in LaVerne Preparatory Academy’s approach consists in engaging parents in their children’s educational process. That parent involvement had been consistently lacking at the school. Many of the parents and educators opposed to the takeover pointed out that 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 LaVerne Preparatory are in English. 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.
Debra Tarver, the owner/operator/progenitor of the LaVerne Preparatory Academy, came in to serve as the “director” at Desert Trails, which underwent a name change to Desert Trails Preparatory Academy.
To at least some parents, the educational program Tarver offered their children represented a substantial improvement over the previous district-run school. Enthusiasm abounded over the new approach. Tarver initiated her program and formula with the 2013-14 academic year. By the close of that first year, however, penetrating questions about the arrangement and its effectiveness were emerging. Tarver did not utilize the collection of subjective empirical data to determine if the makeover of the school into a charter academy actually benefited the students there.
Some parents of students at the school were leery about having their children taken out of a traditional learning environment, and roughly 22 percent of them enrolled their sons or daughters in a different school in the district. Seventy-eight percent of the students who had been at the school remained, which should have provided a sufficient basis upon which to conduct a survey to measure the academic performance of students under Tarver’s program vis-à-vis how they had performed previously.
Unfortunately, a strict apples-to-apples comparison of student performance of those students is not possible.
The California Department of Education, which designates which tests are to be administered at schools and within districts up and down the state, in 2013-14 abandoned its traditional California Standards Test in favor of the new Common Core state standards testing regimen, the Smarter Balanced Summative Assessment developed by the Northwest Evaluation Association. In this way, results from the California Standards Test which were formerly used to derive Academic Performance Index scores at each of the state’s schools and which would have provided a common baseline to measure possible improvement at Desert Trails Elementary School were not available after the first year of the school’s operation nor in the succeeding 2014-15 academic year.
On November 30, 2015, the Adelanto School District’s Board of Trustees, in support of Superintendent Edwin Gomez’s recommendation, voted unanimously to deny Tarver’s application for a charter renewal.
Gomez cited “flaws” in the way Desert Trails Prep was being operated, including a lack of academic achievement, inadequate academic testing and the failure of Tarver to renew its facilities use agreement with the district for the use of the Desert Trails campus.
There were other elements relating to Desert Trail’s operations, ones bordering on or crossing into the arena of a financial conflict of interest, that troubled the Adelanto Elementary School District. Ironically, that issue pertains in some measure to the lack of control exercised by parents, which is the issue at the heart of the parent trigger movement. According to the district, Desert Trails as dominated by Tarver lacks governance structure, having shifted governance to Ed Broker’s Educational Services, a company which Tarver owns. The district cites Ed Broker’s Educational Services as being the governing corporation for LaVerne Elementary Preparatory Academy, located in Hesperia and of which Tarver is the founder and director.
“Obviously, there is a connection and relationship between Desert Trails Preparatory Academy, La Verne Elementary Preparatory Academy and Ed Broker’s and their governance and operations,” the November 30 resolution denying the renewal of Desert Trail’s charter through the Adelanto district states. The district also highlighted concerns about the management of the school’s finances. One issue is that Tarver, who spends as much of her time in Hesperia as she does in Adelanto, is paid $100,000 year for her services directing the charter school.
Tarver has disputed that the charter school is not performing in terms of preparing its students academically, asserting students at Desert Trail have lodged “improved” test scores such that Desert Trails Prep marginally outperformed the Adelanto district’s scholastic scores overall in both English and math on the 2014-15 California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress.
Tarver also sought to defend the arrangement by which the charter schools she oversees are governed administratively by a company she in fact owns. On January 15, the Adelanto Elementary School District sought documentation from Desert Trails Preparatory Academy with regard to the operation’s financials to “ensure that public funds utilized by both Desert Trails’ Inc. and Ed Brokers, for compensation or otherwise, are being appropriately expended and that there is no fiscal mismanagement of the funds of this public charter school.”
Desert Trails had its legal representative respond. On February 12, lawyers for Desert Trails acknowledged that Desert Trails, Inc. is a parent company to Desert Trails Preparatory Academy and that both Desert Trails, Inc. and Ed Broker’s are related organizations under Tarver’s control.
“Ms. Tarver receives a salary of $100,000 per year from Desert Trails to serve as the School’s CEO/executive director,” the law firm acknowledged, and further confirmed that Tarver devotes half of her time to Desert Trails Preparatory Academy and also is engaged at CEO/executive director at LaVerne Preparatory Academy.
Such arrangements involving the now defunct and discredited California Charter Academy involved similar incestuous connections involving California Charter Academy founder C. Steven Cox and his company, Educational Administrative Services Corporation, which led to the filing of 147 yet outstanding criminal charges against Cox and his associate, Tad Honeycutt.
It is an open question as to whether Desert Trails Preparatory Academy engaged in the same quality of misfeasances and malfeasances as occurred with the California Charter Academy. If they did, it does not appear that they occurred on the same scale.
Nevertheless, this entire circumstance casts dishonor upon Parent Revolution, the parent trigger movement in general and the Parent Empowerment Act for the way in which the transfer of the school to an outside entity was done without accountability, adequate follow-up and in a way that allowed state money intended to be utilized for education was diverted to providing a profit to that outside entity.
While advocates of the parent trigger phenomenon remain hopeful that the movement will succeed, there are interest groups opposed to its success. Some education reformers, in particular Parent Revolution, as well as Parent Revolution’s financial backers such as the Gates Foundation and its service providers such as the law firm of Kirkland & Ellis, are anxious to see students brought under the wing of parent trigger actions have their test scores improve.
Others, however, such as some parents devoted to traditional education methodologies as well as the California Teachers Association, would prefer to see statistics showing such students did not achieve any greater academic success following the changes initiated by parent trigger actions. Early on, a counter-parent trigger group formed in Adelanto, initially consisting of parents from Desert Trails Elementary who questioned whether the parents of poor-performing students in the district had the education, understanding, intelligence level, expertise or sophistication to take on the function, individually or collectively, of school administrators. In time, though, that group would find its independence questioned, when it was demonstrated that it was being assisted by the California Teachers Association.
That issue notwithstanding, the belief persisted among a contingent of Desert Trails Elementary School parents that the parent trigger drama in the Adelanto School District was an unseemly spectacle, with agitators in the parent trigger movement seeking to exploit large numbers of parents at Desert Trail Elementary School whose own educational shortcomings, including a lack of facility in the English language, contributed to the poor academic performance of their own children. They resented the intrusion of outsiders into their neighborhood school, and asserted that those agitators had a wider and largely political agenda that was not consistent with their children’s best interest.
This week, nine weeks after San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools Ted Alejandre agreed on January 4 to have his office accept and evaluate Tarver’s appeal of the Adelanto district’s denial of her academy’s charter renewal, much of the controversy attending the Adelanto parent-trigger drama played out when the San Bernardino County Board of Education took up the matter. On Monday March 7, the San Bernardino County Board of Education voted 3-2 to take over as the overseeing agency for the school. That vote means it will be the county school board/county superintendent of schools that will be the chartering entity for the school. The vote did not clarify whether the charter school will remain housed on the campus of the former Desert Trails Elementary School. The Adelanto Elementary School District wishes to reassume operation of that campus, perhaps as early as the 2016-17 school year.
Even assuming that the educational prospects of the students at Desert Trails Elementary School were not harmed by the parent-trigger takeover, there were multiple casualties in the episode.
The first of these was David Mobley, the Desert Trails principal who lost his position there. There followed a disruption and destruction of continuity throughout the district when Darin Brawley, the district’s superintendent, bailed on the district in the face of the effort to wrest from his office control over the school. Brawley, a respected educator, landed on his feet, having been hired to serve as the superintendent in the Compton School District. Brawley was succeeded by Dr. Lily Matos DeBlieux, who has since been displaced by Edwin Gomez.
While four years ago the parent trigger breakthrough in Adelanto was hailed as a significant victory in the parent empowerment movement, at this point the failure of the parents union along with the group Parent Revolution to actually comprehensively involve the failing students’ parents in a meaningful way in furthering the education of their children has redounded to the discredit of the parent trigger concept as a whole. Likewise, Gloria Romero, the legislator whose bill passed into law made the takeover possible, did not monitor the situation in Adelanto to determine if what occurred their matched her intent. Moreover, the selection of Tarver, whose nostrums pertaining to involving parents of failing children in their academic betterment came across as so convincing three years ago, as the poster child of the school reclamation effort is now seen as a highly questionable move, given the conflict-ridden profiteering she appears to be engaged in. If she cannot ensure the nearly across-the-board academic improvement of the students under her charge at Desert Trails Preparatory Academy in the time the San Bernardino County Board of Education has allotted her, the prospect for the future of the parent trigger phenomenon may lapse altogether.