The Toughest Test?

By INVESTOR’S BUSNESS DAILY | Posted Friday, August 01, 2008 4:20 PM PT

Education: A private takeover of L.A.’s infamous Locke High may already be starting to turn it around. Success here would send a message to other failing schools: You’ve run out of excuses.

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Readers of these pages may recall Alain Leroy Locke High School, in the Watts area of Los Angeles. Now and then it’s in the news — we’ve mentioned it before — and invariably the news seems bad.

In 2005, a 15-year-old student was killed there by gunfire from a gang shootout. Earlier this year, Locke was the scene of a melee involving about 600 students, apparently sparked by a fight between rival graffiti gangs. Its dropout rate is among the worst.

One of Locke’s recent principals said he gave up trying to turn it around when he realized it was being used as a dumping ground for incompetent teachers from elsewhere in the vast L.A. school system.

You could hardly come up with a more dismal history or less-promising material for a turnaround. That’s why the private takeover of Locke, which officially started this summer, is potentially so important to the cause of school reform.

If Locke can be whipped into shape, probably any public school could be. And the public school establishment would have no more excuses for failure.

Green Dot Public Schools, a nonprofit group that operates a dozen smaller charter schools in L.A., won the right to operate Locke last year after parents at the school got fed up and demanded real change.

The takeover process wasn’t smooth. Green Dot, run by Rock-the-Vote founder Steve Barr, was opposed by the city’s teacher union, United Teachers Los Angeles, and had to wait until enough reform-minded school board members were elected to loosen the UTLA’s grip on the district.

The Locke takeover is significant not just because it’s such a challenge, but also because it could refute one of the last remaining plausible arguments against charter schools — that they “succeed” mainly through self-selection, by attracting the most motivated parents and kids.

Locke is a traditional public school. Students go there not because they choose it, but because they live nearby. It is the first such L.A. school to be taken over as a charter by an outside group.

So what is Green Dot doing to change things at Locke? One type of reform is structural. The school, which has about 2,600 students in all, is being reorganized into smaller academies of a few hundred students each to help ensure personalized attention and a safe environment.

On the teaching side, Green Dot has cleaned house. Of the 120 teachers at Locke in the past school year, only 40 are coming back. Others have left voluntarily or were asked to leave.

The new staff is unionized, but it’s not under UTLA. Green Dot teachers have their own union and their own contract that offers competitive pay and relatively small class sizes — but no tenure. It’s a deal designed for teachers who want to improve, not just hang on until retirement.

Then there are the little things, which may turn out to be not so little. Locke students wear uniforms. Rules on tardiness are strictly enforced. This summer, at least, the atmosphere is orderly and few of the students are challenging the new rules.

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez visited the campus recently and talked with students and teachers who see dramatic change. One teacher showing him around campus “suddenly stops and points to something that can’t be seen. ‘Serenity,’ he says.”

Lopez also notes that the summer session, with only about 700 students, is a quieter time than the regular term. Come fall, Green Dot will get its real test. If it passes, the big-city school bureaucracy will have a hard time explaining why it can’t duplicate the winning formula.

Yes, Barr has some private money, from sources such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to augment the public charter-school funds. But the Gateses and other reform-focused philanthropists would jump at the chance to help any public school like Locke that is trying something that works. So money is no excuse.

Nor can UTLA dismiss Barr as a union-buster. The Green Dot contract shows that UTLA’s way isn’t the only way to fairly represent teachers. Any public school has the legal right to impose meaningful dress codes and enforce basic rules of order and discipline.

Why don’t they do so now? Good question. We hope Green Dot succeeds in forcing more schools to confront it.


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