01/18/2012 05:24 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2012

Desert Trails Elementary School Makes History

Last Thursday, the parents of Desert Trails Elementary School -- a small, working-class desert community roughly 80 miles northeast of Los Angeles -- made history. They turned in Parent Trigger petitions representing 70% of parents at the school, demanding reform rooted in what's good for their kids, not powerful adults.

The story of how this happened begins with the status quo. Desert Trails Elementary is failing, and has been failing for a long time. It's the worst elementary school in the entire district and in the bottom ten percent in the county and state. And it is not improving -- the school's test scores have declined significantly over the past three years.

Parents at Desert Trails have long been frustrated, knowing that their school was not good enough for their children, but unsure about how they could create the change they needed. They started a PTA. They tried to work with the school and district leadership. They were involved in and supportive of their children's daily academic life. They did everything parents are supposed to do, and more, but nothing changed.

And then last spring, they heard on the news about the historic Parent Trigger campaign of the parents of McKinley Elementary, and finally saw hope to create real change at their children's underperforming school. They called Parent Revolution and asked how they could use community organizing and the Parent Trigger law to transform Desert Trails, and for the past seven months, we have been working hand in hand with them to do just that.

When they were interested in launching a Parent Trigger campaign last summer, our organizing team encouraged them to slow down. We explained that along with this historic power comes profound responsibility for the parents to educate themselves about how best to use this new power on behalf of their children.

So they formed their own Parents Union chapter, the Desert Trails Parents Union, and signed an MOU to formally request Parent Revolution's assistance. They canvassed their community, talking with and surveying hundreds of parents about their hopes and aspirations for their school. Out of those conversations came a collective vision of what a transformed Desert Trails Elementary would look like, crystalized in a five-page list of objectives for their new school. And while those objectives touch on a wide range of important policy issues, their core is a very simple demand -- they want all decisions at their school -- staffing, budget, and curriculum -- to be driven by the best interests of their children. Period.

To accomplish this, they are demanding charter-like freedoms and autonomies for Desert Trails while remaining a district school. They want the ability to select their school's principal and they want that principal to have the autonomy to make key decisions about curriculum, budget, and have full control over staffing decisions to ensure that every single child has an excellent teacher in front of them every day. But their overwhelming first choice is to stay within the district and not convert to a charter school.

These parents have collected Parent Trigger signatures representing overwhelming majority of the parents at the school. The petition presents the district with a choice: either successfully negotiate with the parents for these kids-first changes at the school, or the parents will use the power of the Parent Trigger to convert Desert Trails Elementary into a "community charter school," run not by an outside operator, but by parents and educators from the surrounding community.

Before collecting a single signature the parents met with the District, announced their intentions and explained their preference for a negotiated solution. After beginning the petition drive they invited the District to negotiate on several occasions. Finally, after they told the district they had collected Parent Trigger signatures representing a majority of parents and planned to actually submit them this week, the district has agreed to meet. Now, time is short. If the parents are forced to use the community charter school option, they must take steps to do so within 40 days of filing so the district now has 40 days to negotiate an agreement that gives the school the charter-like freedoms the parents are demanding, or they will be forced to convert their school into a community charter.

Kids-first change never comes easy. Over just the past three years, we've seen fliers threatening parents with deportation if they support charter schools; we've seen Compton Unified literally violate the constitutional rights of their own parents for organizing around Parent Trigger; we've seen the American Federation of Teachers hatch a secret plan to deceive parents and kill the Parent Trigger; and we've seen affiliates of California Teachers Association disseminate lies about parents all the way from Lynwood to San Diego simply because they dared to stand up for change. And although the school and district leadership has not thus far interfered with parents' organizing in any way, the parents at Desert Trails have begun to face personal attacks from certain adults simply because they have chosen to take an historic stand on behalf of their children -- personal attacks we know will only increase in the coming weeks and months. We are optimistic that the district will continue to do the right thing and stand with us to protect parents who are organizing for their kids.

The next 40 days will determine whether the school district is willing and able to work with the parents and negotiate the solution that will meet the parents objectives, or whether the parents will be forced to use the community charter conversion. But either way the parents will prevail -- partly because the law is on their side, and partly because justice and history are on their side. No personal attack or political or bureaucratic obstacle will prevent the Desert Trails parents from using their historic new power to give their children the gift of a great school and a limitless future. It is their right.