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Parents in one small California community have used a "parent-trigger" law for the first time to shut down and take over an elementary school. It's a revolt led by parents who say the school has failed their children, but others say it's not the school's fault.
The school is in tiny Adelanto, Calif., home to several prisons connected by desolate stretches of highway on the fringes of the Mojave Desert.
Doreen Diaz, one of the parents who has led this revolt, is convinced that teachers and administrators at Desert Trails Elementary have given up on their children because they're poor.
"There are just people that believe that these children can't learn, that they'll teach to the ones that get it and too bad for the ones that don't," she says. "The culture there is one that does not believe in our children. How many more children are we going to risk?"
Diaz says her daughter could barely read by fifth grade. She was put in a special education class. She hated it.
"And I found out she was being bullied. There were fistfights in the classroom. She was traumatized, and she became very introverted and that just broke my heart," Diaz says.
Adelanto school officials declined to speak to NPR for this story. Their position has been that schools here struggle because so many students come from impoverished, unstable, single-parent homes. This hurts kids academically. Last year, seven out of 10 sixth-graders at Desert Trails, for example, flunked the state's English and math tests.
Diaz insists that's the school's fault, but it's been hard to get parents to demand changes.
"We're a minority community and a lot of our parents are not legal here, so it's a fear for them to stand up and do something because they're afraid," she says. "Parents were told they would get Immigration on them."
It's unclear who threatened to report parents to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities, but eventually more than half of the parents at Desert Trails Elementary did sign a petition demanding changes, which is all that it took for the parent-trigger law to kick in. The Adelanto school board tried to invalidate the petition after some parents changed their minds, saying they had been duped into signing it.
This summer, though, a county court judge allowed the petition to go forward, forcing the school board to respond to the parent trigger's initial demands: that a new principal take over and hire and fire teachers, and that the school be given control of its budget and curriculum. The school board said it couldn't do this without concessions from the teachers union. The union's position was that the parents' demands were unreasonable.
"I saw the list of demands, and there were many things on the list that were out of not only the union's control, but the district's control," says union president La Nita Dominique.
Dominique says parents didn't just want to get rid of some teachers. They wanted iPads for every child and full-time nurses and counselors — things the district couldn't afford. She says the union and the school board had already agreed to several changes, including a longer school day and more tutoring. But it was too little too late. Parents were intent on taking over.
"This is not about parents running schools. It's about parents having a seat at the table," says Ben Austin, who wrote and helped pass California's parent-trigger law in 2010.
A former deputy mayor of Los Angeles and an adviser in the Clinton White House, Austin is the founder of Parent Revolution, a million-dollar-a-year operation based in Los Angeles that's pushing parent-trigger laws in more than a dozen states. Seven states have some version of the law.
Austin says children's interests too often take a backseat to adults' interests.
"The only way we're going to change that is to effectuate an unapologetic, raw transfer of political power from the defenders of the status quo to parents because parents have a different sense of urgency than anybody else because their kids get older every day," he says.
Austin advised parents in Adelanto to sever their ties to the school district and turn Desert Trails Elementary into a privately run, publicly funded charter school. But not all parents want that to happen. Some see it as a hostile takeover orchestrated by outsiders.
"If this was a true grassroots movement, truly the parents with genuine concern banding together trying to figure out how to make it better, I would've been on their side because it would've been coming from a genuine place of trying to work together," says Lori Yuan, who has two children at the school. "Not any kind of outside involvement, takeover, hostility, lying."
Instead, Yuan and Chrissy Alvarado, who also has two children at Desert Trails, say their kids are thriving. They agree with the school board's position that if kids are failing, it's because they're poor, transient and already way behind when they arrive.
"We have kids rotating in. We have a prison community, a very low-income community," Alvarado says.
She says the parent trigger is not the answer.
"Parents don't know who to trust, who to talk to. If they used to be my friend, they're not sure if they should because they've attacked me on a personal level about what kind of person I am, especially in a Hispanic community," she says.
It has proved to be incredibly disruptive. Still, giving parents the right to take over a failing school is a powerful idea. With the financial backing of influential groups like the Gates, Broad and Walton Foundations, the parent trigger is expected to spread beyond Adelanto.
Correction: December 20, 2012 12:00 am — The audio version of this story incorrectly reports the name of the Adelanto District Teachers' Association president. She is La Nita, not Lanina, Dominique.