A ways east of Los Angeles, Adelanto is a weathered speck of a town barely surviving the Mojave Desert. It swelters in summer, freezes in winter. Flashes of color amid its mauve grid of tract homes are thanks to Cheetos bags or Burger King cups, entangled in tumbleweed.
Desert Trails Elementary School is more of the same. The campus might be mistaken for a chain-link jail yard. Brambles and broken glass fill the sidewalk cracks. The few trees are hunched, stunted by the elements.
And to think — this week, this nowhere school in San Bernardino County could make history as the first in the nation to be seized by disgusted working-class parents under California's much-debated Parent Trigger law.
Last year, Desert Trails earned a 1 on a statewide test-score ranking called API, placing the school in California's bottom 10 percent academically. Desert Trails' student body is almost entirely black and Latino, with the town's small number of white kids removed by their parents to other schools. But the school is failing even when judged only against other heavily minority and poor schools in California.
"I've had actual teachers tell me, 'Too bad for the kids that don't get it,' " says Doreen Diaz, a Desert Trails mom leading the drive for drastic change.
Larry Lewis, a former Desert Trails principal who left for medical reasons, says he tried to set higher teaching standards but, faced with protective teachers union contracts, his "hands were tied from being able to hold personnel accountable."
He says some teachers bullied others for going beyond what the union contract requires — any extra effort such as an after-school meeting or a field trip.
"No one wants to go against the teacher core ... and be ostracized," Lewis says.
So, with the help of Los Angeles–based education-reform group Parent Revolution, Diaz and five other mothers formed a "parent union."
They've collected hundreds of parent signatures requesting that the Adelanto Elementary School District work with parents to build a better school — or, if district officials don't want to collaborate, that a parent-run board take over.
This is the second attempt to use the Parent Trigger in California, which allows parents to intervene aggressively in bad schools if they gather enough signatures from other parents. The first attempt was in December 2010, when Parent Revolution encouraged Compton parents to gather petitions and turn failing McKinley Elementary School over to a reputable charter operator, Celerity Educational Group.
Compton Unified School District stopped that takeover by challenging the nascent Parent Trigger law in court — but the law's regulations have since been clarified.
However, another factor in the downfall of the Compton Parent Trigger movement — resistance from teachers, the teachers union and PTA officials — threatens the attempt in Adelanto.
Diaz says she was a highly active mom on the Desert Trails PTA, but when PTA members heard she was mingling with Parent Revolution, they made her choose: us or them.
The California Teachers Association (CTA) has run a tireless negative campaign against the Parent Trigger law, arguing that it might be used by billionaires to hand schools over to charter companies. Because nonprofit Parent Revolution receives much of its funding from charter-school advocates such as Bill Gates and Eli Broad, CTA has tried to paint the nonprofit as a corporate mouthpiece.
Yet ask the moms who created the Desert Trails parent union, and they'll explain they don't even want a charter school. These San Bernardino County parents have taken great pains to remain independent. Signature-gathering guidelines posted in Diaz's living room stipulate: Identify yourself as a member of the Desert Trails parent union, not Parent Revolution. When the moms go door-to-door, they wear T-shirts with their own logo.
Still, the moms say they've gotten complaints from teachers. And no wonder: A warning posted last summer on the CTA's website reads: "CTA members at school sites where Parent Trigger petitions are being circulated should notify their local CTA chapter leadership immediately ..."
But in the hard-bitten town itself, the reaction to the parent-led reform has been overwhelmingly positive.
"We had one parent say she thought of us as her angels," says Holly Odenbaugh, a member of the steering committee. Another "broke down crying at the door."
Working the Adelanto town grid around the clock, a core group of moms has collected signatures from well over half of the parents whose 700 children attend Desert Trails — in a fraction of the time it took Compton organizers to do it.
Diaz says the elementary school has such a nasty reputation that many parents "want to sign before we can even explain."
But Adelanto Elementary School District officials won't even discuss the parents' ideas for fixing the disastrous school, the parent union says. District officials did not respond to the Weekly's requests for comment.
Parents met last fall with assistant superintendent Ross Swearingen and presented him with a list of goals — then sent three letters. They had hoped to negotiate with the bureaucracy before tapping the law, which gives parents the right to take over or even shut down a bad school. But in response, Swearingen wrote: "We respectfully decline to meet all of the demands as they were presented."
The parent "demands" include: "We want teachers to ... foster a positive school culture" and "All students must be taught science, history, art and physical education as prescribed by the California State Teaching Standards."
Diaz's daughter began first grade in a special-ed class that was "just a nightmare. It was first to sixth grade, all mixed together — screaming at each other, fistfighting." But later, in a mainstream class, her daughter again learned nothing. "This year, she started fifth grade — at a second-grade reading level."
So this week, these families will present Adelanto Superintendent Darin Brawley with a thick stack of petitions signed by parents. Within 40 days, district officials must either agree to work with parents to overhaul Desert Trails — in which case the district would still have access to its state funding — or turn the school over to parents.
When the Weekly contacted Desert Trails principal David Mobley a little more than a month ago, he seemed to believe the district had the upper hand, saying: "There could be lawsuits for years."
In his opinion, the Parent Trigger approach is just a trend, "one of those things in education where the pendulum goes back and forth," he said. Still, he added that he admired the parents for being "very aggressive and passionate about their cause."
In fact, unless there is something technically unsound with the paperwork that Desert Trails parents submit Jan. 12, they will, under California law, have the power to hire new teachers and administrators — as they see fit.
Parent Revolution policy director Christina Vargas in Los Angeles has been holding informational sessions with the Adelanto mothers on the steering committee, providing them with research on what makes an academically successful school.
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The parents told Vargas a "traditional college-prep" model looks right for Desert Trails.
If the district refuses to collaborate, the Desert Trails parent union would form an Education Management Organization (EMO), whose board would be made up of parents and experts in areas such as finance, law, nonprofit management and school curriculum. The board would hire a new principal and other administrators, who then would hire teachers — perhaps an entirely new crop.
Principal Mobley, who's relatively new to Desert Trails, prefers a slower, more collaborative approach, saying, "We need to work within the system to make the changes. There are [union] contracts and budget constraints, but that's going to be the process. We'll get there."
But former Principal Lewis says simply, "Sometimes you have to force change."