‘Stray Dogs’

Alexander Russo’s Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors gets a rave review from Jay Mathews. Russo writes about Green Dot charter schools’ attempt to turn around Locke High in Los Angeles, a very low-performing school. Mathews calls the book “a must-read, nerve-jangling thrill ride, at least for those of us who love tales of teachers and students.”

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  1. I’ll repost the “review” that I wrote in the Locke turnaround thread, with question #3 edited to add some specifics after looking at my Kindle highlights.

    I read this yesterday. It’s a very worthwhile and entertaining read, but I was disappointed that the author didn’t dig deeper into three key issues:

    1. What exactly did the star guidance counselor do to warrant such an abrupt and hush-hush termination? The best results of the Locke turnaround so far have had to do with retention and absenteeism, and Kaplowitz was seemingly leading the school’s charge on those fronts. Furthermore, the Green Dot/charter model relies heavily on people going way above and beyond the call and putting in a superhuman effort. Was burnout or breakdown behind her departure, or some other occupational hazard related to the long hours and becoming so personally involved with students’ lives?

    2. Russo acknowledges the New York Times report—never refuted by Green Dot or anyone else as far as I know—that the Locke turnaround effort has been extraordinarily expensive, costing an additional $4 million per year above and beyond even the extra federal funding Locke receives as a turnaround school. But that’s as far as he goes. Where was this money spent? Instruction, security, physical plant, social services, etc? We know from the sections on Monica Mayall that it certainly wasn’t going to reduce class sizes.

    3. Russo humorously describes the Locke turnaround as a rainbow-colored unicorn, a possibly unprecedented combination of a regular neighborhood district school + a charter operator + unionized staff. But there are several places where references are made to bulk expulsions/dismissals: the football coach who says something like “this wouldn’t have been possible with the kids we had last year,” and then in the passage where AP Moody wants to expel David, one of Kaplowitz’s pet projects. I would have liked to know who these students were, how many of them were there, why and how were they removed from Locke, and where did they go?

    Russo does an excellent job of getting into the personalities of the people who work at the school, and revealing the power struggle at the top of Green Dot. It’s not really a story about students or their families. As far as the larger reform debate, this book is basically a blank slate—if you support traditional district schools, you’ll see Locke as evidence that with lavish funding and attention, even the most horrible district school can be improved. If you are a charterite/reformerista, you’ll say Locke’s test scores don’t tell the whole story, and that the culture change simply couldn’t have happened in a conventional LAUSD school. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, it’s a fun read that’s worth the time and money.