Squaring up in the US

14th December 2012 at 00:00
America's controversial `parent trigger' law enables big changes to be forced on failing schools - and has caused bitter disputes among communities. Stephen Exley reports from the front line

The school doesn't care," Malia Fitzpatrick says, sighing. She has a point: on the rare occasions that her teacher is not fiddling with her mobile phone she is cruelly mocking her young dyslexic pupil's tentative efforts to read out loud.

Welcome to Adams Elementary, a persistently failing school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that has been rendered ineffectual by years of mismanagement and apathy among its teachers.

When Malia misses out on a place at the successful charter school - the US equivalent of a free school - down the road, this is the final straw for her mother, Jamie. She teams up with demoralised teacher Nona Alberts to make use of a new law that will allow them to force through the badly needed change at Adams that they both crave.

And despite myriad hurdles placed in her way by the Machiavellian teachers' union opposing the takeover - including bribery and a vicious smear campaign - the plucky single mum finally manages to give her daughter the school she deserves.

If you think this sounds like the plot for a Hollywood blockbuster, you're right. Won't Back Down - the latest film from Walden Media, the studio behind the critically acclaimed 2010 documentary Waiting for "Superman" which examined the failures of the American public education system - was released in the US this autumn.

But the real-life parents and campaigners who "inspired" the film say that enacting change is far from simple. One of them, Teresa Rogers, calls Won't Back Down "totally far-fetched; that's Hollywood", adding: "They make it look like it was a piece of cake. It was anything short of a piece of cake."

Rogers should know. Despite never mentioning it by name, Won't Back Down has been described by its critics as a piece of propaganda for a controversial new legislative tool: the parent trigger law. And Rogers is hoping that her son's school, Desert Trails Elementary in the California town of Adelanto, will be the first place where parents finally pull the trigger.

If education secretary Michael Gove thought his free school policy offered unprecedented power to parents by allowing them to set up their own schools, the state of California has taken things to a whole new level.

If at least half the parents of pupils attending a school sign a petition, the legislation allows them to force through significant changes. At its most extreme, this can mean a school being completely closed down. Other options include implementing a "turnaround" process in which at least half the teachers are sacked or - the option favoured by Rogers and fellow parents from Desert Trails Elementary - the school is forced to convert to charter status.

The law is growing in popularity; since being introduced in California in 2010, it has been adopted by six more states. As a result, the 10 or so core members of the Desert Trails Parents Union (DTPU) have unexpectedly found themselves in the limelight, rubbing shoulders with the Won't Back Down stars Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Hours before a judge gave the go-ahead for the DTPU to put their plans into action, TES met the determined band of mothers changing the US educational landscape.

The desert town of Adelanto is less than two hours' drive from Hollywood Boulevard, but, dotted with Joshua trees, it has the unmistakable feel of a frontier town.

Indeed, around a third of Adelanto's population is transient. It has five prisons, so the children of inmates make up a sizeable minority of Desert Trails' intake. The relationship works both ways: officials use third- grade reading scores to help them calculate how many prison beds will be needed in the future.

From the outside, 14,367 Delicious Street looks like any other house on the quiet residential road. But the five-bedroom property is being rented by Parent Revolution, the not-for-profit organisation that conceived the parent trigger idea and supports parents who want to use the law. It is funded by a clutch of wealthy backers including charter school operators and the Bill amp; Melinda Gates Foundation.

This crudely adapted family home is now the headquarters for the Desert Trails parents who have found themselves on the front line of a continuing battle that has divided the community. Both sides agree that change is needed at Desert Trails: what divides them is what they think should be done.

In the other camp, the school district and the teachers' unions believe that Desert Trails can improve if all the parties pull together and keep the school under the control of the local authority. A rival group of parents is also firmly against the trigger. One of them, Chrissy Alvadaro, has spoken out in support of the school's teachers, citing a lack of leadership in previous years as the cause of its underachievement.

But the DTPU, with support from high-profile backers such as school reform advocate Michelle Rhee's lobbying organisation StudentsFirst, is adamant that pulling the trigger is the best option. And the group is ready to keep up the fight.

The language is militaristic; the group's trademark "I am the Revolution" T-shirts have become de rigueur at the school gate. The DTPU headquarters has the feel of a small-town war room, albeit a child-friendly one.

A handful of young Desert Trails pupils take advantage of their week off school by chasing each other past noticeboards filled with charts, graphs and slogans. "1 Team, 1 Goal, No Excuses" one poster proclaims. On another, parents are ranked according to their level of cooperation with the campaign, from one ("hostile") to five ("supporterwilling to participate").

Rogers joined the DTPU in January, after attending meetings arranged by the two rival groups of parents. She felt that doing nothing was not an option. She claims that one of her sons, Tyjzohn, fell behind because inadequate teachers were not able to control their classes. His twin brother Tyjzeek suffers from ADHD; he ended up in a special needs class that Rogers describes as a "circus" and was sent home almost daily. Tyjzeek is now at another school and his academic performance and behaviour have improved dramatically, Rogers says.

Rogers' concerns appear to be borne out by the statistics. Desert Trails' standing in the Academic Performance Index - which measures pupils' test scores - this year fell to 699, the lowest in the school's history. It is also Adelanto's worst school.

A former principal of Desert Trails, Larry Lewis, says he had little idea what he was letting himself in for when he took on the headship - his first - at the school in 2010. Even after 20 years in the US Marine Corps, it came as a shock. "It was a real baptism of fire," he says.

So what had gone so badly wrong? "Entitlement," Lewis answers quietly. He is speaking of the complex, bureaucratic process for dismissing long- serving teachers from US state schools. And the complacency of the long- serving staff at Desert Trails - exacerbated by the strong union presence - had caused the school to stagnate, Lewis believes. "The school was a site that many teachers steered clear of."

It wasn't just teachers who stayed away. The school roll has consistently dropped by 10 to 15 per cent each year, he says.

"If you go out in the morning at 7.30am on the street right here, you'll see the buses coming to pick up the children to take them to Riverside Prep, a new charter. I would see anything from 50 to 100 kids that belonged in our school (getting on buses)." Even after retiring from his job last summer owing to ill health, the situation clearly still rankles.

"I know that this environment can produce, and I know that if children have someone standing in the gap, providing an opportunity for them, then they will achieve," he says. "I am elated right now at what I know is about to happen."

Hard target

After witnessing at first hand the impact that Desert Trails had on her daughter Vanessa, Adelanto mum Doreen Diaz decided enough was enough. First she attempted to instigate change by becoming president of the school's parent-teacher association. However, frustrated by what she felt was inaction on the part of the school district, last year she picked up the phone and called Parent Revolution.

With the organisation's help, Diaz and a handful of other parents set up their own parents' union "chapter"; they started knocking on doors and finding out how other parents felt.

When they circulated petitions calling for change at Desert Trails, the response was conclusive: 70 per cent of parents backed them. A petition calling for Desert Trails to be reopened as a charter school was submitted to the district.

Diaz says the parents were left with no alternative. "We came up with many different options, partnership schools and how we could keep (the school being run by) the district. They shot all that down; they chose not to hear our voices."

The DTPU had another formidable opponent: the teachers' unions. Concerned at the political forces at work behind the scenes, the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the Adelanto District Teachers' Association set out to prove that parents had been pressured into backing something they didn't understand or agree with. As a result, 97 parents rescinded their signatures, meaning the DTPU no longer had the backing of the 50 per cent of parents it needed. In turn, the DTPU accused the teachers of intimidating and misleading parents. It also resubmitted the petition.

David Goldberg, a member of the board of directors at the CTA, believes the parent trigger is the "wrong fight" for parents. As a long-serving teacher, he has seen reform initiatives come and go, and is unconvinced that dramatic structural changes bring about improvements.

Parent voice, he argues, is already protected by state and national law, giving the community a direct say in the school decision-making process. "Charter schools, which the parent trigger is often used as a tool to create, are exempt from all those laws," Goldberg says.

"Who are they giving the power to? They are giving it to an outside organisation with little connection to the community. Schools don't belong to any group of parents who are there for a time; they don't belong to the teachers who are there at the time. They belong to the public for ever. There's no moral justification for giving a school away."

And the trigger law is more about national politics than local schools, Goldberg believes. "People who are aggressively trying to destroy unions have found a tool to do it, and the tool they've used to do it is an effective one. You can take on these millionaires and billionaires and their obvious interests, they would lose to us (in a public debate), but when they pay for parent groups to be their front, it's a hard thing for us to counter. It speaks to a need that we really have to try to address: parents feeling disconnected and frustrated with education. I don't think we've figured out how to tackle that."

In July, a judge approved the resubmitted petition and ruled that the parents' plans could go ahead. The Adelanto school board rejected the judge's order; three months later, the school district's final throw of the dice - offering to implement its own turnaround model instead of a charter - was thrown out in another court hearing and the previous ruling reiterated.

A new charter school, operated by the high-achieving LaVerne Elementary Preparatory Academy in nearby Hesperia, is scheduled to open its doors on the Desert Trails site in September 2013. Given the twists and turns in the saga so far, few are expecting the process to be straightforward.


States with a parent trigger law:

  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Indiana
  • Louisiana
  • Mississippi
  • Ohio
  • Texas.

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