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 the state'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.
In a case that drew national attention, Adelanto parents successfully used the parent trigger 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, 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.
Those grim statistics will change, vowed charter director Debbie Tarver.
"I'm not looking for a miracle this year, but I can almost guarantee there will be major growth," she said.
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.
A visit to a kindergarten class this week demonstrated some of the school's hallmarks: a passion for reading classics, high academic expectations and rules for student behavior explained and demonstrated. The upbeat teacher, Marlene Strickland, held the eager attention of two dozen children as she asked questions about the pirate book she was reading, trained them to raise their hands before speaking and "zip our lips" to listen to others.
By June, Tarver said, the students should be a year ahead of their peers: adding double-digit problems, mastering more than 150 words and writing complete paragraphs. The school will teach all students both Spanish and Latin and offers an enrichment class of arts, music and sports at least once a week. Classes are limited to 25 and both the school day and year are longer than those at traditional campuses, Tarver said.
She said students are monitored with regular testing and paced to their level with individual and small-group instruction. Those advanced in math, for instance, may switch to a higher grade for that subject while those struggling may study with a lower grade, Tarver said.
"We don't limit anyone's ability," said Tarver, a 27-year veteran at both traditional and charter schools. "We take them as far as they can go."
That approach thrills Sharlene Duke, a parent who said she frequently asked for more challenging work for her daughter, Tiffany, but never received any last year. "I don't think the other teachers really cared," she said. "These ones do."
Tarver said she interviewed more than 400 applicants for two dozen teaching spots. She hailed her LaVerne staff for helping prepare the campus and train the new teachers, who are fully credentialed. None of the former teachers applied to the school, which is non-union.
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. But that process sparked bitter conflict in Adelanto, where charges of harassment, intimidation and deceit surfaced between two groups of parents — one supported by teachers unions and the other by Parent Revolution.
The Adelanto school board rejected the petition, which was initially signed by parents representing 70% of students, after dozens complained they were misled and rescinded their signatures. But a San Bernardino County Superior Court judge ruled that recisions were not allowed and ordered the school board to accept the petition.
The controversies in Adelanto and elsewhere have fueled calls to reform the parent trigger law with stronger provisions for public information about petition campaigns. The Los Angeles Board of Education recently called for more information related to campaigns and stronger safeguards in the law against manipulation.
Today, Cynthia Ramirez, a parent leader of the petition campaign who celebrated the school's opening with scores of other families at a nearby park, said that "the tension around the school is completely gone."
"If anything, our friendships have grown because we now have something in common: a better school for our children."