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Parents pick charter via “parent trigger”

A small group of parents in Adelanto, Calif., became the first in the nation Thursday to choose a charter operator to take over their neighborhood school through the controversial “parent trigger” law.

On a 50 to 3 vote, parents who voted chose LaVerne Elementary Preparatory Academy as the charter operator to take over the embattled Desert Trails Elementary School, which has been at the center of a bitter battle for the past nine months.

California’s Parent Empowerment Act of 2010, known as the parent trigger law, enables parents representing more than 50 percent of students to sign a petition to force major reforms on a low-performing school, from firing the principal and half the staff to a charter conversion.

At Desert Trails, more than 600 students and 286 parents signed a petition last year seeking a charter conversion. Accounting for parents who had since left the school, 180 were eligible to vote. Parents who did not sign the petition were not eligible.

Some parents who fiercely oppose the conversion have vowed to pull their children out of the school next fall.

“I want nothing to do with the people behind it,” said parent Maggie Flamenco.

The choice was between LaVerne Elementary, which has run a K-8 charter school in Hesperia, Calif., since 2008 and focuses on a classical curriculum with an emphasis on Latin, and the Lewis Center for Educational Research, which runs a K-12 charter school in Apple Valley, Calif., with a focus on science and project-based learning.

Doreen Diaz, the lead parent organizer for the conversion, said she preferred LaVerne Elementary because it has outperformed Desert Trails on test scores even though it has similar demographics. LaVerne Elementary scored a 911 on California’s 1,000-point Academic Performance Index last year, compared to Desert Trails’ score of a 699.

She also liked that LaVerne Elementary’s proposal included a more formalized structure for parent involvement. LaVerne Elementary promised to create a parent board comprised of parents, a staff member, the principal, assistant principal and other school representatives. The proposal stated that the parent board would serve as a liaison between school administration and parents.

“That’s a level of power the district has refused to give to parents,” said Gabe Rose, deputy director of Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles nonprofit bankrolling the parent union.

The parent union did not allow parents who hadn’t signed the petition to cast a ballot because they had already outlined the process in writing when they campaigned last winter, Rose said. California regulations state that the petitioners should select and solicit the operator, he said.

“We’re bound by the promise we gave to the community about the process,” Rose said. “We would have loved to be able to open it up to more.”

The next step is for LaVerne Elementary to formally submit its charter proposal to the school district. Charter schools are independently run and publicly financed and overseen by an agency. In California, that agency is typically the local school district’s governing board. The Adelanto School District must approve the charter proposal if it deems it meets the state’s requirements, including a sound fiscal plan and appropriate curriculum. All current students at the school and their siblings would be guaranteed spots.

Parents first started organizing the Desert Trails Parent Union in June 2011, and the union first filed its petition to convert the school into a charter school on Jan. 12. Several battles with the district over verifying signatures ensued, and the parent union ultimately won a key victory in court last week.

In the meantime, momentum for parent trigger legislation throughout the nation has been building. Well-funded advocacy groups like Parent Revolution and StudentsFirst are now using the new movie “Won’t Back Down” to rally more support.

By the end of this winter, Parent Revolution anticipates that additional parent groups in the Los Angeles or greater California area will be going public with their own pushes to invoke parent trigger, Rose said.

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