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Parents prepare to take over failing school

| Tuesday, July 24, 2012, 6:14 p.m.

A group of California parents has cleared a legal hurdle to become the first in the nation to take over a failing elementary school under a “parent trigger law,” a legal tool gaining popularity around the country.

San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Steve Malone has ruled that parents in Adelanto, a desert town 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles, should be allowed to implement the state's trigger law, which says that a majority of families at a struggling school can force major changes, from firing the principal to closing the school and reopening it as an independent charter. All they need to do to wrest control is sign a petition.

At a Los Angeles gathering to celebrate the decision, the parents said they hoped to set an example for the nation. “Our children will now get the education they deserve,” said Doreen Diaz, whose daughter attends Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto. “We are on the way to making a quality school for them, and there's no way we will back down.”

At Desert Trails last year, two-thirds of the children failed the state reading exam, more than half were not proficient in math, and nearly 80 percent failed the science exam. The school has not met state standards for six years, and scores place it in the bottom 10 percent of schools statewide.

It's just the type of situation reformers had in mind when they wrote the trigger law, which applies to 1,300 public schools in California that, under certain criteria, are labeled as “failing.”

Earlier this year, the Adelanto Elementary School District rejected the parents' trigger law petition twice, saying each time that it lacked the required number of valid signatures.

But Malone ruled that the parents had indeed gathered enough valid signatures and ordered the district to accept their petition. He also said the district should immediately let the parents start soliciting and selecting charter school proposals for Desert Trails.

“These parents did it,” said Ben Austin, director of Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that gave the parents strategic and legal help. “They are the first parents in America to win a parent trigger campaign, the first parents in America to take control of the educational destiny of their children. It's a big deal.”

Austin said that the court ruling happened too late for the parents to select a charter operator for the upcoming school year and that any change is likely to happen in 2013. “It would be irresponsible to open up a school in just weeks,” he said.

Carlos Mendoza, a high school teacher and chairman of the school district's board of trustees, wrote in an email that the board has yet to discuss the court decision. But he will recommend that the district appeal it, he said.

The idea behind the 2010 law — placing ultimate power in parents' hands — resonates with any parent who has felt frustrated by school bureaucracy.

But others see the law as dangerous, handing the complex challenge of education to people who may be unprepared to meet it. Critics also say the law circumvents elected school boards and invites abuse by charter operators bent on taking over public schools. A group of Desert Trails parents is opposed to the trigger, and they have received help from the California Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers union.

Trigger laws are spreading beyond California. Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana have passed similar measures, and they are being debated elsewhere, including in Maryland. The U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously endorsed trigger laws. Even Hollywood has noticed; a feature film, “Won't Back Down,” made by the producers of the 2010 documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,' “ is coming out this fall.

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