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A struggling school, a bitter fight over 'parent trigger' law and no tidy Hollywood ending (a la 'Won't Back Down') in sight

Bret Hartman / Washington Post via Getty Images

Parent Union organizer Doreen Diaz, right, walks with her daughter and other children to the front door of Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto, Calif., in February.

Viola Davis, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Oscar Isaac and Rosie Perez chat about their new movie, "Won't Back Down."

Doreen Diaz left the red carpet movie premiere of “Won’t Back Down” in New York City last week feeling encouraged.

But then the 47-year-old mom, a key figure in the education movement that “inspired” the feature film, headed back to the tiny desert city of Adelanto, Calif., and her tract home near Desert Trails Elementary School. That’s where the real battle over the so-called “parent trigger” law drags on, with no tidy Hollywood ending in sight.

“The movie makes it look a lot easier than it really is,” said Diaz, who started drumming up support to overhaul her local public school more than a year ago.

Desert Trails, where 100 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, ranks in the bottom third of California schools with similar demographics and has been stuck on the federal watch list for failing schools for six years. Sixty-two percent of students are Hispanic and 27 percent are black. One-quarter of students don’t speak English at home, and 15 percent of students tested in 2011 had disabilities.

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Diaz felt that  the school had given up on its poor and minority students. She wanted more for her daughter, a special-needs student who started the fifth grade last year at a second-grade reading level.

Diaz and other organizers of the Desert Trails Parent Union, educated and bankrolled by Los Angeles nonprofit Parent Revolution, continue to fight the school district in court to turn over their neighborhood school to a charter operator. If they succeed, they’ll become the first in the nation to successfully invoke a parent trigger.

The controversial legislation enables parents who collect signatures representing more than 50 percent of students to force a major overhaul on an underperforming school, from replacing its principal and half the staff to shutting it down. Similar parent-trigger laws are now in seven states, with forms of the legislation in the works in 20 others since California narrowly passed its Parent Empowerment Act in 2010.

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The concept behind the parent trigger is instantly appealing to Americans fed up with foundering schools: Give parents the power to turn around a school that’s failing their children when bureaucrats don’t or won’t act. Prominent Democrats and Republicans have touted the idea as a bipartisan solution to expanding school choice and spurring complacent educators to action.

The movement appears to have public support: 70 percent of likely voters said they’d support parent-trigger laws in a March national poll by StudentsFirst, a pro-school-choice advocacy group run by Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools. An independent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll released in September reported the same approval rating.

But teacher union leaders and critics like the Chicago-based advocacy group Parents Across America blast “Won’t Back Down” as propaganda, and they question whether people throwing their support behind parent-trigger laws understand the ramifications of the complex policy solution. They argue the movement’s supporters have demonized teachers and promoted hostile takeovers over collaborative reform.

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"This is not true parent empowerment,” said Leonie Haimson, founding member of Parents Across America, which opposes school privatization and high-stakes testing. Haimson joined about 50 protesters at the New York premiere of “Won’t Back Down.” “These are the choices of billionaires and hedge funders and other venture philanthropists who send their own kids to private schools.”

Influential groups like Parent Revolution and StudentsFirst have been lobbying for the cause and searching for parents to test out the fledgling laws. The legislation’s supporters are eager to use "Won't Back Down," which is financed by conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz’s Walden Media, to popularize the parent-trigger policy.

Parent Revolution, supported by the Gates, Walton Family and Wasserman foundations, on Friday announced plans to host "Won't Back Down" screenings with panel-led discussions in 19 states over the next four weeks. Walden Media also distributed the pro-charter school documentary "Waiting for ‘Superman’" and is pushing an activist toolkit on the new movie's website. (The Gates and Wasserman foundations are among the funders of The Hechinger Report.)

“Usually a movie like this comes out long after a social movement and documents it through the eyes of the hero,” said Ben Austin, founder of Parent Revolution and former Clinton White House adviser. “But this movie is coming out in the almost embryonic stage of the movement, and will sort of become part of the movement.”

Parent Revolution’s first attempt – in 2010 at McKinley Elementary in Compton, Calif. -- died in court. The charter operator picked by Parent Revolution still managed to get approval to open a school close to McKinley, but less than one-fifth of McKinley parents moved their children there.

Parent Revolution learned from its mistakes, said deputy director Gabe Rose. The nonprofit, with a roughly $3 million annual budget and 35 staffers, now focuses on letting local parents choose their preferred reforms and emphasizes charter schools aren’t always the best option, Rose said.

But in both Compton and Adelanto, the process has proved divisive.

At school drop-off zones, board meetings and press events, Desert Trails Parent Union promoted catchy mottos on T-shirts and signs like “Si Se Puede,” and “I am the Revolution,” while a counter-campaign led by opposing parents had theirs: “Save Desert Trails” and “Yes to change, no to charter.”

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Parents on both sides have accused each other of intimidation and harassment and called police on one another. PTA meetings have erupted into shouting matches, and kids have been bullied for wearing pro- or anti-trigger law shirts to school.

“It's tearing that school apart,” Adelanto School District Board Member Jermaine Wright said. “If the parents are fighting, then it starts to trickle down to the kids.”

Desert Trails PTA Vice President Lori Yuan, whose 7- and 9-year-olds attend the school, won’t be lining up to see “Won’t Back Down.” Yuan, 39, is among the faction of parents actively opposing the trigger effort. She said she, too, wants to see improvement at Desert Trails but is convinced that a charter operator isn’t the answer.

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She wants to give Principal David Mobley, who took the helm only three months before the trigger effort went public, a chance to turn things around. And she questions the political motives behind Parent Revolution, which rented out a five-bedroom house to serve as the parent union’s headquarters and helped secure a law firm to represent parents pro bono.

"Why do the people that attend Desert Trails today get to determine a future when there's a whole community that technically owns the school?" Yuan said. "This is not a grassroots movement."

Mobley has launched a new literacy program through Success for All, a research-based curriculum with a national track record. A new after-school program extends the school day by three hours for about one-sixth of the school’s 600 students. And this month the school formed a new “alternative governance council” comprised of teachers, managers and parents on both sides of the trigger debate to oversee progress.

The board voted in August to carry out that alternative governance reform model instead of the parent union’s charter school plan, on the premise that it was too late to convert to a charter school this year. Outraged, the parent union went back to court, arguing the district deliberately defied the judge who validated the charter petition.

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If the judge again rules in the parent union’s favor at a hearing later this month, parents who signed the trigger petition will vote Oct. 18 on one of two local nonprofit charter operators that submitted bids to take over Desert Trails in the fall of 2013.

By this time next year, Diaz’s daughter will have moved on to middle school. Diaz credits a good teacher with helping her daughter advance two and a half grade levels last year, and she’s a co-chair on the new governance council, but she said recent changes were made “too little, too late.”

 “It’s not just about my daughter,” Diaz said. “It’s about the community. We have to make a change because the children deserve the best futures, and they can get there through education.”

This story, "A struggling school, a bitter fight and no tidy Hollywood ending in sight," was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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