Turning Locke — and more

Green Dot had started successful charter schools in Los Angeles. But could Green Dot transform low-performing Locke High? Desperate teachers voted to try. In Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors, Alexander Russo reports on the struggle to turn Locke into a decent school.

“Locke’s transformation has been a long slog, not an unmitigated success,” writes Gerilyn Slicker on Gadfly.

Russo reports teachers with blood-shot eyes, exasperated with their efforts, puking before starting class in the mornings, or crying quietly in the bathroom after a long day with the students. He chronicles powerful stories—both positive and negative—that have helped to shape Locke over the past three years. Among them: The tale of Keron, a football player who was pepper-sprayed by a rogue security officer after being caught gambling at school and one of Miss K., who battled to keep David, a defiant upperclassman filled with potential, in the school through graduation. This honest on-the-ground portrayal reminds us: School turnarounds are a hard business, indeed.

Terry Moe has a new book, Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools, which Fordham’s Checker Finn calls “deeply informative, profoundly insightful, fundamentally depressing, and yet ultimately somewhat hopeful about an educational future that unions won’t be able to block—though they’ll try hard—due to the combined forces of technology and changing politics.”

On the other side of the political and educational spectrum, Alfie Kohn has published his “contrarian essays” as Feel-Bad Education.

About Joanne


  1. Stray Dogs looks interesting. I’ve always wondered how to turn around a school like that.

    Moe’s book looks like it’s on right on target, but I agree with him already. No need to be reminded that the union thwarts reform.

    Kohl’s book looks interesting. Reading it might change the way I do things.

  2. CarolineSF says:

    I can’t wait to read Alexander’s book, but have to correct an impression left by this post. Green Dot’s schools are overall strikingly low-performing, based on their API.

    Terry Moe was a huge pusher of Edison Schools, the “it’s a miracle!” school reform hype of 10 years ago whose former cheerleaders now pretend they never heard of it. How many chances do these guys get to hype their latest miracle fad before they lose their credibility?

  3. Most of Green Dot’s pre-Locke schools have above-average API scores compared to schools with similar demographics. Some of the established schools perform at or above the state average, despite enrolling disadvantaged students.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    The struggle is admirable, from a certain point of view. But there’s something to the notion that we shouldn’t repeat Hitler’s mistake at Stalingrad.

    A better idea might be deploying resources where they can really do some good; it’s not serving anyone’s purpose in the long run to grind a perfectly good teacher cadre into dust against the millstone of a school filled with people who would rather not be there but are forced to be present by compulsory schooling laws that treat young adults as if they were incapable infants.

  5. CarolineSF says:

    Joanne, that’s what the charter people call “excuse-making” when it’s applied to public schools. Goose, meet gander.

    Also, the L.A. Times’ coverage when Green Dot took over Locke was quite emphatic in stating that Locke would be different from the already-existing Green Dot schools in that the other Green Dot schools had benefited from the self-selection/creaming effect. That was significant because the Times, whose coverage has been very favorable to Green Dot, had not really owned up to that effect previously.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    There are three things you can do with determined losers:
    Let them sink or swim, mostly sink.
    Run around after them, cleaning up.
    Drag them along with you, knowing the least second’s lack of attention on your part will lead to complete regression and that a huge amount of energy will be required to simply get them to, metaphorically speaking, stop grocery shopping at the gas station and start grocery shopping at Walmart.
    It is conceivable that a certain, very small, number of people will actually starve to death rather than take some initiative. It is certain that a much, much larger number of people will resolutely refuse initiative as long as they aren’t starving to death.

  7. 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 isn’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 is a brief paragraph where Russo refers to the school’s having pared enrollment in the chaotic year where Green Dot wasn’t technically in charge, but still had an influence on operations. 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.