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'Parent Trigger' Group Seeks Help from School Operators

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Emboldened by a recent legal victory, a group of parents seeking to use a "parent-trigger law" to overhaul a low-performing California elementary school on Friday began publicly courting outside organizations to help guide them through that complicated process.

If the plans for Desert Trails Elementary take hold, it would be the first time in the nation's history that a parent trigger law has been used successfully to bring about changes to the structure and operations of a school, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But while the parents in Adelanto, Calif., say they are moving forward, it remains unclear whether legal obstacles remain. The Adelanto school board, as of late this week, was still considering whether to appeal San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Steve Malone's recent ruling that allowed the parents to move ahead with their plans.

Previously, district officials had said they wanted to review the parents' specific ideas for Desert Trails before deciding whether to challenge the judge's decision. District officials had not yet responded to requests for comment on Friday.

That issue aside, a group representing the parents who have led a petition drive to overhaul the school, calling themselves the Desert Trails Parent Union, released an eight-page set of guidelines for organizations seeking to submit proposals to work with them to bring changes to the elementary school.

The parents are requesting potential operators for the school to submit "letters of interest," which will include descriptions of their plans for the school and engaging the community, by August 3. Applicants who qualify would then be invited to submit detailed proposals by Sept. 21, which would be evaluated in accordance with the state of California's parent-trigger regulations. The parents who signed the petition to transform Desert Trails will then choose the operator they want, through a vote.

The parents' group envisions a schools serving about 740 students in grades K-6. All students currently enrolled will be guaranteed admission to the school, if they want to continue attending, according to the parent group's guidelines.

The goal is to have a school that is "transformed and fully operational" by September of next year, said Doreen Diaz, a member of the group, in a statement.

To date, much of the debate over parent-trigger laws has focused on their capacity to give parents the power to convert traditional public schools to charters, or replace their schools'staff.

But the parents in Adelanto, in a statement accompanying their invitation to school operators, said they would consider proposals not just from nonprofit charter operators, but also from labor organizations, other school districts—and from the Adelanto school system, itself.

Teachers' unions would, on one level, seem unlikely collaborators on any such project. The California Teachers Association opposed the Adelanto parent-trigger venture, and the union and a group helping the parents, Parent Revolution, have traded accusations for months that the other side was misleading the public about the petition drive and the school's future.

In their document inviting operators' letters of interest, the Desert Trails parents document the school's academic woes, saying it has been "consistently failing its students for years." The parents say they envision creating a restructured school that operates with both autonomy, but is held accountable for strong academic performance.

Seven states, including California, currently have parent-trigger laws, according to NCSL.

Those laws typically allow parents to bring about major restructuring of schools through a majority vote of parents. Trigger policies have drawn praise from some quarters for their potential to cut through bureaucratic and political obstacles and bring changes to schools. But they have also been criticized by those who predict they will set in motion poorly conceived plans for school change, written by organizations with little interest or ability to serve schools' needs.

In California, efforts to use parent-trigger laws to bring changes to struggling schools in the community of Compton, and until recently Adelanto, have been derailed by legal challenges. In other states, the laws are relatively new, meaning that in some cases low-scoring schools have not been struggling for long enough periods of time to be subject to the trigger policies.

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