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 The cracked pavement had been replaced by a lawn of thick green grass, lined with newly planted olive trees.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.