Locke boosts graduation numbers

Locke High School’s last class of students from the pre-charter era will be graduated today in Los Angeles. The 484 graduates represent an 85 percent increase from 2008, the last year Locke was under district control, according to Green Dot. The number of graduates completing the A-G college-prep requirements has tripled.

When Green Dot took over the school, it placed 10th graders in Launch to College Academies (LCA). Of  340 LCA students, 306 will walk at the graduation ceremony. Also graduating are 41 students at Animo Locke 4, a school for over-age and credit-deficient students and those returning from juvenile detention.

I’ve been reading Alexander Russo’s Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors on Green Dot’s struggle to turn around Locke. There are no miracles. It’s a long, hard slog.

‘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.”

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.

Read all about it

PBS education correspondent John Merrow of Learning Matters recommends six new or upcoming education books, including his own book, The Influence of Teachers, on the Huffington Post.

Alexander Russo’s Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors: Fighting for the Soul of America’s Toughest High School tells the story of the transformation of Locke High School in Los Angeles into a Green Dot charter school.  This is the one I’m most likely to read. (Send me a review copy, Alexander.)

The Bee Eater, Richard Whitmire’s semi-authorized biography on the controversial Michelle Rhee, is a “terrific read,” Merrow writes.

Merrow also likes A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Flux by John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas, who write: “The ability to play may be the single most important skill to develop for the twenty-first century.”

New York Timesman Gene Maeroff, a school board member in Edison, New Jersey, is the author of School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy.

The Perfect Test by Ronald Dietel may be the first education reform murder mystery.  Ten years in the future, the Venus Assessment System has made U.S. students number one in the world in math and science. (It’s science fiction too!) But one of the test developers “discovers a secret list of names, students who are exceptions to the high-stakes consequences of the test. So secret that some people are willing to kill for it.”

My review stack includes The Same Thing Over and Over by Frederick Hess on “how school reformers get stuck in yesterday’s ideas.” Also David Kirp’s Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Transforming Children’s Lives.

I’m also enjoying Andrew Ferguson’s very funny Crazy U, subitled “one dad’s crash course in getting his kid into college.”  Ferguson, a Weekly Standard writer, talks to a private admissions counselor (the platinum package costs $40,000), college guide editors, testing critics and the Kitchen People, equally college-crazed parents who gather  to brag (or agonize) about their children’s SAT scores. He follows backwards-walking tour guides as they describe the unique college experience in exactly the same way as all the other college guides, including an obligatory Harry Potter reference and the number of a cappella groups on campus. He takes the SATs and pays a company $199 for  a dreadful essay.  “One stroke at a time, I am prepared to study diligently and become a valued contributor in this learning environment, one step at a time.” He does refuse to divorce his wife to provide family trauma for his son to write about.

The son, who lacks the Eddie Haskell characteristics needed to market himself, gets into the flagship state university, his first choice.

For those in D.C., Samuel Casey Carter’s On Purpose: How Great School Cultures Form Strong Character will be featured at An Evening on Purpose Feb. 16 from 5 to 8 pm at The University Club, 1635 16th Street, NW.

All these books go well with Our School: The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds by me.

Black leader attacks union 'gang'

The Chicago Teachers’ Union is a gang, charged James Meeks, chair of the Illinois Senate Education committee and pastor of Salem Baptist Church, in an Oct. 17 speech.

“Chicago Public Schools have a gang problem. The gang, however, is not the BDs (Black Disciples), the gang is not the GDs (Gangster Disciples), the gang is not the Vice Lords and the gang is not the Four Corner Hustlers. The gang is the Chicago Teachers Union.”

Angry about the gang reference and an Oct. 29 Tribune commentary, the CTU has cut off donations to Meeks, reports the Chicago Tribune.

Meeks told the Tribune editorial board late Wednesday that the threat of such financial pressures explains why “legislators won’t speak out against the atrocities of the Chicago Teachers Union. . . . I’m finding where every dollar is they’ve given me and I’m giving it back. They can give it to some legislators they control.”

In his Tribune op-ed, Meeks blamed  “despair, disruption and ultimately violence” on students’ educational frustrations.

. . . the Chicago Teachers Union has figured out a way for teachers to not be evaluated on obvious criteria, such as how well they perform in the classroom. Nobody wants to be held accountable, but the blood of every child is on our hands. . . .”

For the first time in my personal and political career, I am exploring the idea of vouchers and charter schools to help facilitate choice and enhance academic performance. Why should we continue to make investments in a system that is bankrupt and weighed down with bureaucracy?

We must begin making decisions that are in the best interest of children, such as mandatory teacher evaluations. Since the will to change the system is nonexistent, we should allow students the flexibility to attend schools outside their district.

Is it a stunt, a sincere change of heart, or a turning point for city politics? asks Alexander Russo on his District 299 blog.

Twittering on education

Who in the edusphere is a Twitterer? Alexander Russo has the list and the links.

I Twitter as joanneleejacobs because my alter ego — an Aussie professor turned London-based networking entrepreneur — has joannejacobs taken.

Signs of hope at Green Dot's Locke

Today is graduation day at Locke High School in Los Angeles. There are subtle signs of a turnaround since the Green Dot takeover a year ago, reports the Los Angeles Times.


For years, Locke, on the edge of Watts, has had among the state’s lowest test scores and highest dropout rates. In 2004, 1,451 students enrolled as freshmen; just 261 graduated four years later. Of them, only 85 had completed the courses required to apply to a University of California or California State University school.

A year ago, Green Dot Public Schools, which runs 12 charters serving the city’s urban poor, took over the school. The effort to transform Locke has been a nationally watched test of whether such a large, deeply impoverished urban high school could be transformed by a charter operator.

Locke has plenty of problems, but more students are earning diplomas and more graduates are eligible for state universities, notes Alexander Russo, who’s been following the school’s transformation.

Students tell the LA Times the campus is “safer and calmer.”

The teachers, although mostly young and inexperienced, receive praise for being devoted and effective. There are signs of academic progress. Students repeat one point over and over: Instruction is better and nearly all teachers work hard and expect them to achieve.

A young teacher who started 12th grade English teaching the difference between a noun and a verb ends the year by asking students about Macbeth.

“What kind of person does Lady Macbeth want her husband to be?” she asked her class a few days after the test.

“A murderer,” said Deon, appearing more focused that day.

“What does Lady Macbeth want her husband to seem to be?” Bridger continued.

“A hero, a leader,” said Daniel, who was awake that day. He works 35 hours a week at Subway, for $8.25 an hour, to support his girlfriend and their two children.

Ninth graders attend separate academies that try to teach students good habits and behaviors and get them caught up on reading and math skills. Green Dot also is working with feeder middle schools to strengthen students’ preparation for academics.

Here’s the LA Times’ photo gallery.

Green Dot tackles a turnaround

Once a violence-ridden, chaotic, low-expectations school where 75 percent of students never earned a diploma, Locke High is now part of Steve Barr’s Green Dot charter school network. New Yorker writer Douglas McGray looks at what’s changed.

“Last year, there was graffiti everywhere,” Barr said. “You’d see kids everywhere–they’d be out here gambling. You’d smell weed.” He recalled hearing movies playing in classroom after classroom: “People called it ghetto cineplex.” Barr and (Los Angeles Superintendent Ramon) Cortines walked to the quad, where the riot had started. The cracked pavement had been replaced by a lawn of thick green grass, lined with newly planted olive trees.

“It’s night and day,” Cortines said.

Green Dot is trying to educate the same kids who went to Locke before.

Old-timers and union loyalists who left Locke after the takeover insisted that Green Dot would find a way to weed out problem kids. Others, such as (Assistant Principal Zeus) Cubias, worried that uniforms and the promise of tougher discipline would simply keep bad kids away. But teachers and administrators went out into the neighborhood to visit hundreds of parents and students and encourage them to reënroll. Eighty-five per cent of Locke students returned. (In a normal year, only seventy per cent would come back from summer break.)

Alexander Russo, who’s been reporting on Green Dot’s takeover of Locke, calls it a “neighborhood charter school.”

Ninth graders go to small schools, some meet in portables or off campus. The upper three grades are split into two academies, one for each wing of the building.

Thirty per cent of the old faculty asked to stay and were rehired. Their Green Dot union contract gives them higher pay than before but no tenure rights.

Dozens of kids told me this — that teachers make them do stuff now, whether they want to or not. Almost immediately, Shannan stopped ditching. For one thing, she couldn’t get away with it anymore. (“They don’t play,” she said.) She stopped fighting, too.

. . . she tries to do the work now. When I asked her why, she thought about it for a long time. “Honestly, it didn’t matter how you did before,” she said. “Wasn’t nobody really looking at Locke kids”–meaning to go to college. That’s not true, of course, but it felt true to Shannan. “Now, if I make a bad grade, I’m like, ‘Please, can I make it up?’ “

Locke’s first year of scores as a charter school aren’t out yet. If it improves significantly — especially for the ninth graders — Barr’s plans to transform other large, low-performing LA high schools will advance. With federal support and money, Green Dot could go national. But it’s easy to try to do too much and flop.

Reform for money

It’s not just the money, said President Obama, answering a question a his town hall meeting yesterday at a Los Angeles high school.

. . . you can’t just be talking more money, more money, without also talking about how are we going to reform and make the system better. (Applause.) There’s got to be a reform agenda in exchange for the money. (Applause.) There’s got to be a reform agenda in exchange for the money.

So don’t just say, give us more money or smaller classrooms — but you’re not willing to consider, for example, how are we going to do better assessments; or how are going to — how are we going to work to improve teacher performance; and if a teacher is not improving, how do we get them to choose a different career, right? (Applause.) I mean, there’s got to be — there’s got to be some serious conversation about that.

. . . Parents — (applause) — you can’t complain about the schools and complain about the teachers, but when your child comes home, they’re playing video games and not doing homework, and you don’t have time to go to your teacher and parent — teacher-parent meeting. Our parents have to instill a sense of excellence and a thirst for knowledge.

Chinese and Indian students “don’t have better facilities, but they’re out-performing us in math and science,” Obama said. Parents need to demand “higher performance from our kids,” he said.

To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, show me the reform! Show me the reform! In legislation, not just exhortation.

Obama spoke at Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, “touted as a model of urban-education reform” for its smaller classes, increased autonomy and innovative programs,” notes the LA Daily News.

The school is also set to lose half of its teachers and a large portion of its administrators next year, and only half of its seniors graduate in four years.

. . . Opened in 2006, Miguel Contreras is an experiment in creating small learning communities out of large urban campuses. Serving about 2,000 students, teachers work under modified union contracts that give them more decision-making power. The school also has more flexibility on how it spends its money.

Such innovation drew young teachers and administrators who ironically are now targeted for layoff for lack of seniority.

In its first two years, the school didn’t meet performance goals:  “Three percent of the student body is proficient or better in math, according to the district’s school report card, while 21 percent scored proficient in English.”

However, the school is “newly upgraded and beautiful looking,” writes Alexander Russo.