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Parents' effort to fix failing Adelanto school comes to a head

After weeks of controversy, school officials are expected to decide whether to approve the parents' petition for dramatic changes at Desert Trails Elementary under a landmark California law.

March 28, 2012|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times

Mojave Desert school officials are expected to settle weeks of controversy Wednesday over what could be the first successful effort by California parents to petition for dramatic changes in their failing school under a landmark but still largely untested state law.

Parents at Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto, where fewer than half the students are proficient in reading and math, called Tuesday for school board officials to approve their petition and end what became an acrimonious signature-gathering process marked by charges of deceit and harassment on both sides.

The petition asks that Desert Trails be transformed into a charter school, but parents reiterated they would prefer that reforms be collectively developed by an independent organization of parents, teachers and district staff.

A key change, parents said, would be the ability to choose their own principal with more flexibility to remove ineffective teachers and more autonomy over curriculum and budgets.

"As parents, we are determined to succeed … and to get the best for our children," said Cynthia Ramirez, one of the leaders of the Desert Trails Parent Union, which launched the petition drive last year with the aid of Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles nonprofit educational organization.

Under the 2010 parent trigger law, parents representing at least half of the students at a low-performing school can petition to replace staff and curriculum, shut down the campus or turn over management to a charter operator. Charter schools are independent, publicly financed and mostly nonunion. The first effort to use the law in Compton failed last year when the school board rejected the petition for errors.

In Adelanto, Ramirez and others initially submitted their petition signed by parents representing 70% of 666 students in January. But the school board rejected it after parents of 97 students rescinded their signatures, claiming that they had been misled about what the petition would do.

Parent Revolution then uncovered evidence that some of the recision documents had been doctored and asked the San Bernardino district attorney to conduct an investigation. On Tuesday, several elected officials representing the Adelanto area and the bipartisan sponsors of the parent trigger law, Senate minority leader Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) and former state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), joined the call for a probe. A district attorney's spokesman said the complaint remains under review.

Pat DeTemple, organizing director of Parent Revolution, said his forces gathered more signatures, successfully challenged nearly half the recision documents and resubmitted the petition earlier this month. He said he was confident that the petition meets the 50% threshold, but his group would take immediate legal action if the board rejected it again.

Chrissy Alvarado, a petition opponent, said her side has gathered about 20 new recisions and predicted that the petition would fail. Both sides said most parents are tired of the drama and just want to end the process.

Adelanto school board President Carlos Mendoza said he was prepared to approve the petition if all legal requirements are met.

"The board has no intention of challenging the law," Mendoza said. "If they have enough valid signatures, we must accept the petition."

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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