School at the center of controversy opens, gives parents sense of power

Teresa Watanabe / Los Angeles Times /

Published Aug 2, 2013 at 05:00AM

ADELANTO, Calif. — Fourth-grader Tiffany Duke said she was happy to hear her teacher announce that bullying would be strictly punished. Kathy Duncan is thrilled that her sixth-grade son will be placed in a regular class this year instead of separated with other special education students. And even though 9-year-old Jodeth Orellana said she was unprepared for multiplication problems on her first day of school, her father was impressed by the rigor.

“That’s what I want: The kids have to be challenged,” William Orellana said after dropping his daughter off at school Tuesday.

After two years of controversy and court battles, the first school forced into a major overhaul by California’s pioneering parent trigger law opened its doors this week in the High Desert community of Adelanto. Nearly 600 students, outfitted in school colors of navy blue and khaki, gold and white, flocked to class at the Desert Trails Preparatory Academy, a public school now run by founders of a high-performing charter organization affiliated with the University of La Verne.

Under the 2010 parent trigger law, parents representing at least half the students at a low-performing school can petition to force out staff, convert to a publicly funded charter or close the campus.

In a case that drew national attention, Adelanto parents successfully used the law last year to petition the school board to turn over management of failing Desert Trails Elementary School to the LaVerne Elementary Preparatory Academy.

Last year, only about one-third of Desert Trails students were at grade level in English and math; nearly one-fourth were suspended or expelled, twice the district and statewide rates.

The school’s opening marked “a new era of parents having power over the education of their kids,” said Ben Austin of Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles nonprofit that lobbied for the parent trigger law and trained Desert Trails parents on how to use it.