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Charter to take over school in parent-trigger case

Adelanto parents select LaVerne Elementary Preparatory Academy to operate Desert Trails Elementary School, ending months of court battles.

October 22, 2012|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times
  • Parents of students at Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto, Calif., cast ballots last week in the vote to choose a new charter school.
Parents of students at Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto, Calif., cast… (James Quigg, Daily Press )

A high-performing charter school affiliated with the University of La Verne has been selected to take over a struggling Mojave Desert elementary school that has been a test case of the state's pioneering parent-trigger law.

After months of conflict and court battles over the law, Adelanto parents voted last week to select LaVerne Elementary Preparatory Academy to take over their Desert Trails Elementary School in August. The election was the state's first vote for a charter school under the law, which gave parents the power to petition for such charter conversions, staff overhauls or other sweeping changes at low-performing schools.

Parents said they had high hopes that the charter would at last bring help to Desert Trails, where only one-third of sixth-graders are at grade level in reading and math. The school's achievement score on a 1,000-point scale known as the Academic Performance Index fell by 13 points to 699 this year.

In contrast, LaVerne Elementary's score rose to 911 this year from 869. About two-thirds of its sixth-graders were at grade level in English and just over half in math. Only 17 sixth-graders were tested at LaVerne, however, compared to 95 at Desert Trails. LaVerne also has a student body with less poverty and higher parent education levels.

"I'm excited and happy that we're finally able to move forward and provide a better education for students," said Doreen Diaz, a parent who led the pro-charter campaign.

But some school officials and parents expressed concern that only 53 ballots were cast in the charter election. Although the school has about 400 families with 610 students, only 180 parents who signed the petition for a charter campus during the campaign last year were eligible to vote under the parent-trigger law.

"Fifty-three votes cast the direction of the school," said LaNita M. Dominique, president of the Adelanto teachers' union. "That's a little disheartening."

Carlos Mendoza, the Adelanto school board president, said the low voter turnout demonstrated that the pro-charter effort had lost most of its support.

He said, however, that the board would fully comply with the law and await the formal charter proposal for review. Before voting, Mendoza said, he intended to scrutinize LaVerne's educational plan and financial condition and seek answers to such questions as who would provide and pay for food service, transportation and other services. Charters receive public funds but are independently managed; most are nonunion like LaVerne.

Diaz blamed the low voter turnout in part on the community's high transiency; the Desert Trails Parent Union said it could verify only 180 current parents among 286 who signed the petition. But she said she was comfortable that such a small number of parents decided the school's fate because new families she spoke with were excited about the charter.

She also accused Principal David Mobley of discouraging parents from voting and the teachers' union of undermining the election by holding a school board election event at the same time. Voting hours were from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. last Thursday and the event, a skating party, was held from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Dominique denied the allegations, saying she only learned of the election the day it happened, well after the union had planned its school board candidates event.

Mobley also said neither he nor his staff attempted to influence voter turnout. The woman whom Diaz said reported the alleged intimidation said Friday that her remarks were misconstrued. Kathy Duncan, a charter supporter, said she overheard Mobley tell a parent only that he was not bothered by the voting and "work is work and we'll be here tomorrow."

But Duncan said she was thrilled by the new charter — especially the chance for her two fifth-graders to wear LaVerne's school uniforms next year.

Parent Revolution, the nonprofit that lobbied for the law and aided Desert Trails parents, hailed the vote as a historic step. It came after 18 months of charges and countercharges of fraud and harassment in the petition campaign, two school board votes to reject the petition and two court rulings ordering the board to accept the parent requests.

"Their vote sends a powerful message to parents across America that they too can have a direct voice in reclaiming and transforming failing schools. No parent need ever feel intimidated when they look at what the parents of Desert Trails have achieved," Ben Austin, the group's executive director, said in a statement.

At least one parent who opposed the charter takeover said, however, that she would pull her children out of Desert Trails if the school was converted. Linda Yuan said the school community had put several reforms in place this year that should be given time to take hold. They include a new literacy program, extended school day and more computers — reforms that all teachers signed a written pledge to support.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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