Bill Raden writes in Capital & Main about the status of the Adelanto elementary school that was converted to a charter school via the “parent trigger.” The article is almost a year old; I didn’t see it sooner. Thanks to reader Jack Covey for bringing it to my attention.
Throughout 2011 and 2012, the eyes of the education world were focused on Adelanto, a small, working class town in California’s High Desert. A war had broken out there over the future of the K-6 Desert Trails Elementary School and its 660 low-income Latino and African-American students. When the dust settled, Desert Trails Elementary was gone. In its place was a bitterly divided community and the Desert Trails Preparatory Academy, the first (and so far, only) school in California and the U.S. to be fully chartered under a Parent Trigger law, which allows a simple majority of a school’s parents to wrest control of a low-performing school from a public school district, and transform it into a charter school.
Tiny Adelanto’s turmoil reflects a much larger battle now being fought across America between defenders of traditional public education and a self-described reform movement whose partisans often favor the privatization and deregulation of education. At least 25 states have considered parent trigger legislation and seven of them have enacted some version of the law, including Connecticut, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas. Though funded by tax dollars, the trigger charter is private, meaning it is not bound by many of the rules and much of the governing oversight or transparency of a traditional public school.
At the end of Desert Trail’s inaugural, 2013-14 school year, a group of eight former Desert Trails teachers hand-delivered a 15-page complaint to the Adelanto Elementary School District (AESD), charging Desert Trails with an array of improprieties and its executive director, Debra Tarver, with unprofessional and sometimes unethical conduct.
Among the most serious accusations are charges that administrative chaos at Desert Trails has resulted in both a stampede of exiting teachers and staff; that uncredentialed instructors have taught in its classrooms; and that Desert Trails had an unwritten policy of dissuading parents of students with special learning needs from seeking special education. The teachers also allege that they had to endure a bullying regime in which, they say, they were continually screamed at, spied on, lied to and humiliated in front of parents and their peers by Tarver and her deputies. Capital & Main spoke with the teachers, four of whom agreed to go on the record for this story. (“The High Desert is a small place and Debbie Tarver has a long reach,” said one teacher who requested anonymity.)
Teachers complained that they had to buy supplies out of their meager salaries.
The teachers interviewed for this story, who were paid about $3,300 a month, claim the school’s extreme miserliness shortchanged teachers and students on basic classroom tools. Over the first year, they said they each spent up to a full month’s salary, and in some cases more, on unreimbursed, out-of-pocket expenses.
“At the start of the year,” recalled kindergarten teacher Bertha Miramontes, “I ended up spending $1,000 because the décor in my classroom, [Tarver] said, was not good enough. I would spend anywhere between $200 to $300 per month to get supplies — writing paper, pencils, construction paper, tissues for my kids’ noses, hand sanitizer, crayons.”
These teachers also say that Tarver, who as executive director of a charter school is paid a salary commensurate to that of a San Bernardino county school district superintendent by both Desert Trails and LaVerne Elementary Preparatory Academy — a combined annual salary of around $200,000 — ordered the student water fountains shut off for the duration of the bitterly cold High Desert winter, rather than pay for overnight heat to prevent the pipes from freezing.
The biggest problem was teacher attrition, which was unusually high, even for a charter school.
But the scores went up.
One thing on which the two sides do agree is that Desert Trails did post test-score gains.
“We had 47 percent of our scholars who [rated] proficient and advanced,” Tarver said of the California Standards Test results for 5th grade science, “and we only had a 15 percent rate of those that were below and far below [state standards], which is a huge difference from the 30 to 40 percent that school had for the past 10 years.”
More comprehensive, schoolwide scores, she said, wouldn’t be released by the school for another month.
For the ex-teachers, it is a tarnished achievement that came at the terrible price of shattered morale and the stability and consistency that underpin a quality education.
“It wasn’t the holistic, well-rounded education that they were promised,” Salazar asserted. And [teachers leaving] is difficult. It’s hard on the scholars and it’s hard on their families.”
The parent trigger was enacted in 2010. Five years later, this is the result. Some will say it was worth the struggle because the test scores are higher, although the students are not the same as in the Desert Trails school. Others will say the destruction of the school and its community was not worth it. The charter company must surely be happy to have achieved ownership of a multi-million dollar property and the state funding that goes with it.
What bothers me, I must admit, is the promiscuous use of the term “scholars” to describe little children. They are students; they are children. They are not scholars. A scholar is someone who devotes his or her time to the deep study of an academic pursuit to advance the frontiers of knowledge and publishes his or her findings. I truly don’t understand what is gained by distorting language. But then, reformers do this so often that I should not be surprised. When they eliminate bonuses for advanced degrees by teachers, it is “reform.” When they eliminate certification as a requirement for all teachers, it is “reform.” When they close a community’s school and hand its assets over to a private corporation, it is “reform.” Sigh.