Earlier this week, the families who took control of Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif., took the final step in their long battle to take control and turnaround the failure mill when it appointed a charter school operator, LaVerne Elementary in nearby Hesperia, to operate the school on their behalf. The approval, along with the ouster last November of two of the Adelanto Unified School District board members who fought unsuccessfully to stop the families from taking over the school, completes the effort of the families to become the first in the nation to use a Parent Trigger law to take control of a school — and show other families how they can become lead decision-makers in education as they should be.
Now another group of families, this time in Waterbury, Conn., is looking to join Desert Trails families in taking control and overhauling a failure mill. For most of the last decade, Walsh Elementary School has been one of the Nutmeg State’s worst-performing schools. Although the percentage of third graders reading Below Basic according to Connecticut’s standardized tests declined from 65 percent in 2006-2007 to 46 percent in 2010-2011, far too many children attending Walsh aren’t getting the high-quality instruction, curricula, and school leadership they need for long-term success. Considering that the Waterbury district, which operates the school, is doing poorly with all of the children under its care (including graduating just 68 percent of its original Class of 2010), it isn’t shocking that Walsh remains low-performing.
But for the families at Walsh Elementary, especially those who sit on the school governance council that exercised the Parent Trigger under Nutmeg State law (with help from teachers at the school), the move isn’t just about woeful performance.
The Waterbury district, looking to take advantage of a key aspect of Gov. Dan Malloy’s school reform effort, is looking to put Walsh under the oversight of the state’s Commissioner’s Network. Originally envisioned to resemble the Recovery School District reform initiative in New Orleans and Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority, the Commissioner’s Network hasn’t been as well received by Parent Power advocates in the state as Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor would like. For good reason. A school placed under the Commissioner’s Network would not be allowed to keep its family-controlled school governance council; instead, it would be replaced by a turnaround committee whose parent representative would be appointed by the National Education Association or American Federation of Teachers local. Just as importantly, the district would still retain control of the school; in theory, a district can merely use the Commissioner’s Network to gain additional dollars and do little else.
The fact that Walsh Principal Erik Brown may be tossed aside despite the view of those families that he has done the best he can with little support also makes them skeptical of any plans to put the school under the state umbrella. One can argue fairly that it may not make sense to keep Brown — best -known nationally for banning Christmas symbols in the school – - in his role; after all, the trajectory of Walsh’s performance under his leadership has been a bit of a see-saw, with improvement stalled in the past couple of years. At the same time, those families may reach the same conclusion after a year or two of the school being under their control. In any case, the understanding that families can learn how to make such decisions and do so effectively is inherent within Parent Trigger laws.
The next step for the Walsh families is deciding which turnaround model they prefer. One of the models allowed for use under Connecticut’s Parent Trigger law would lead to Walsh becoming a charter school managed either by a charter operator, a university, or Walsh’s own teachers. The other model — putting the school under the CommPACT schools initiative controlled by the Nutmeg State’s NEA and AFT affiliates — would kibosh Parent Power by eliminating the school governance council already in place; it would be no better than being under the Commissioner’s Network.
The families at Walsh Elementary may not be the only ones who use the state’s Parent Trigger law. One hundred eighty-seven schools have school governance councils in place, the first condition required for families in the Nutmeg State to use the Parent Trigger and launch school takeovers. Many of those schools have been failing for a decade or longer despite numerous turnaround efforts, largely because they have been overseen by districts that are themselves failing. Parents and caregivers tired of waiting for districts to do right by their children, frustrated with leaders and teachers who treat them as nuisances and pests, and looking to provide their kids with high-quality education right in their own neighborhoods (and not just to escape failure), are likely mulling their next steps. This will prove a challenge, not only to districts and NEA and AFT affiliates. The prospects of more families launching Parent Trigger takeovers may also frustrate the efforts of Malloy and Pryor to get the Commissioner’s Network off the ground.
So expect Parent Power activists, as well as traditionalists and reformers (including Beltway and other operator-oriented reformers who have long treated Parent Trigger laws with skepticism) to be plenty interested in what happens at Walsh Elementary. Because it may be more than just the next school that families take over.
For reformers, including Beltway and operator -oriented reformers long-skeptical of Parent Trigger laws, the opportunity is