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'Parent trigger' campaign divides families at troubled Adelanto elementary school

Some angry parents want to remove their names from petitions seeking charter status before the school board votes.

February 19, 2012|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times

Julie Rodriguez wanted improvement — but not a wholesale change of staff — at her children's school in the High Desert community of Adelanto. So late last year she signed what she thought was a petition, circulated by parents she considered friends, for more programs and better teachers.

But she learned that what she actually signed was a petition to convert Desert Trails Elementary School into a charter campus, a change she says she had specifically told organizers she didn't want. Furious, Rodriguez has rescinded her signature and is working to help other parents do the same before the Adelanto school board votes Tuesday on whether to accept the petition.

"They lied to me," Rodriguez said of supporters, "and now it's a big old mess."

In the second effort to use the "parent trigger," a landmark state law giving parents unprecedented power to force sweeping changes at low-performing schools, proponents turned in signatures last month representing 70% of Desert Trail's 665 students to convert to a charter. Those campuses are mostly nonunion, publicly financed but independently run.

Parent leader Doreen Diaz said at the time that the school, where two-thirds of sixth graders failed state proficiency tests last year in English and math, needed a major overhaul.

But some parents say the Desert Trails campaign has divided the campus, destroyed friendships and given rise to charges on both sides of harassment and deceit. Some say that parent organizers, trained by the Los Angeles nonprofit Parent Revolution, confused them by presenting two petitions — one for district reforms and one for a charter — and they signed them thinking they were backing such improvements as better security.

Cynthia Ramirez, a leader with the pro-petition Desert Trails Parent Union, said her group has not misled or harassed anyone. She said its members have carefully explained their strategy to all parents. That strategy, she said, has been to circulate two petitions but to submit only the charter petition as leverage to press the school district into certain reforms.

A letter explaining the group's strategy was left with all parents contacted, she said. Parents had canvassed school families on their desired changes, held meetings to vote on objectives, then gathered petition signatures, she said.

Now, she said, the effort is being sabotaged by a few parents and the California Teachers Assn., which she accused of sending staff to Adelanto in recent days to organize a signature-rescission effort.

Teachers association spokesman Frank Wells said the union was not engineering any efforts to sink the petition. He said union staffers have only provided information to parents about the parent trigger law and other related questions. The local Adelanto District Teachers' Assn. also helped secure a meeting room for information sessions because parents did not have insurance, he said.

"The effort up there is parent-led," Wells said. "As far as us going around and telling people to do something one way or another, the answer is no."

School principal David Mobley said the conflict has spilled onto campus. He said he has had to intervene to calm parents and ask them to step off school grounds as they try to distribute dueling information and corral support. The tension has also filtered to the students, who have begun fighting as well, he said.

"It's sad because these kids used to be really good friends," Mobley said. "Now these kids have become pawns in a political mess, and it just breaks my heart."

The first test of the parent trigger law in Compton late in 2010 also sparked controversy. Parents at McKinley Elementary School submitted petitions to convert their campus to a charter school, but the school board rejected it; the issue is still tied up in court.

In Adelanto, Ramirez said former school board member Lisa Marie Garcia approached her and others about a parent trigger campaign. Larry Lewis, then principal at Desert Trails, also got involved and is a board member of Desert Trails Kids First Inc., a new nonprofit that aims to convert the school into a charter.

The Adelanto organizers contacted Parent Revolution for training. Pat DeTemple, organizing director of that group, said that although the Compton campaign divided the community, the vast majority of parents at Desert Trails continue to back the petition and that any controversy has been fanned by a few dissident parents.

Lori Yuan, an anti-petition parent who has two children at Desert Trails, said she wants to give Mobley a chance to turn around the school without the upheaval of a charter conversion. Mobley, she said, has a track record of improving low-performing schools and has helped heal the division left in the wake of the previous principal.

Adelanto school board president Carlos Mendoza said that officials intend to follow state law and that, if the petition is found to be valid, they will move toward a charter conversion.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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