Editorial from the Los Angeles Times
June 25, 2009 - Teenagers never look more innocent than at their high school graduation. That was certainly true of the graduates of Locke High School, which a year ago was one of the most troubled schools in one of the nation's most troubled school districts. Off campus, many of them might wear gang colors, but on Wednesday they were draped in baby blue robes, perfectly behaved as they slow-marched in rows of four around the athletic field.
These youngsters were at the forefront of a daring effort to show that dismal schools can be transformed. They were given a taste of how education could look. But even a charter takeover could not change Locke enough, quickly enough. Not in one year.
A daunting challenge
Jeremy Zuniga wasn't about to give in. His history students pestered him to administer the final exam early because many of them wouldn't be attending school the last couple of weeks. Never did. They'd worn the reviled uniforms all year; they'd kept the graffiti down. But just because Green Dot was running things now, that didn't mean they would give up this longtime Locke practice.
Many teachers caved. Zuniga didn't. But neither did a number of his students. He asked the ones with solid B averages, why flunk after months of hard work? Their only answer: We just don't come to school the last couple of weeks.
Green Dot Public Schools is ending its first year at Locke with solid accomplishments, some of them striking in comparison with the lethargy that prevailed in previous years. Most students say the school improved greatly as a charter, and those who disagree object to the very things that make the transformation so appealing to adults: the uniforms, the security guards who made sure they didn't cut class. Locke took on new energy as a cadre of idealistic teachers mapped out instructional plans to grab their students' attention. Attendance was up significantly. Troublemaking -- fights, tagging, arson fires and the like -- decreased dramatically.
Yet the makeover of Locke proved far more daunting than Green Dot or its teachers anticipated. This attempt to turn around an existing large and troubled school was unlike anything it had attempted before, marking the first true test of whether a charter's formula for success might be applied to regular public schools. At its start-up schools, Green Dot controls enrollment and attracts motivated families from across attendance boundaries who must agree to its rules. The result is small charters with high graduation and college attendance rates. At Locke, Green Dot took the risk of operating under the same conditions that hobble many public schools -- accepting all the students within the attendance boundaries, whether or not they wanted a charter school, would follow its rules or even understood what the change was about.
That openness meant a sudden October influx of hundreds more students than the school had staff or space for -- a total of more than 2,800 students assigned to several smaller academies. Teachers who had been promised class sizes capped at 28 were teaching 33, sometimes up to 40. The transiency that has always plagued the Los Angeles Unified School District continued to be a part of life at Locke. Students simply disappeared during the year. Many said they were transferring to another school, but administrators were too overwhelmed to find out if this was true in many cases. Ronnie Coleman, principal of the two large "Launch to College" academies for 10th- through 12th-graders, suspects the school made little headway on the dropout problem this year. Meanwhile, scores of new students enrolled up to two weeks before classes ended, unprepared for their studies or life at their new school. Locke is much changed from what it was a year ago, but it is not transformed.
Many teachers at the academies for the older students sound a little discouraged. They started last fall ready for an educational revolution. But a culture of failure doesn't turn around on a Green Dot dime. Zuniga struggled to get his students to do research. They learned to complete basic homework, such as filling out work sheets, but stubbornly resisted assignments that required initiative. He settled for the less ambitious goal of getting them to take notes. This year, they simply copied word for word from PowerPoint presentations. Next year, he'll eliminate some of the visual props so they'll have to listen and decide what to jot down.
Better security prevails at Locke, the teachers said, but not academic rigor. There were supposed to be remedial courses in math and English for students who failed the high school exit exam last year. But there weren't enough computers for the online curriculum, and teachers scrambled to come up with courses on their own. They feel nowhere close to a Launch to College. And even the teachers who look young enough to be high school students themselves criticize Green Dot for hiring too many inexperienced teachers who lack credentials. They need coaches, mentors, more experienced teachers to show them how to use instructional materials, said Maggie Bushek, who just completed three years of teaching English. Instead of investing in teacher training, she said, Green Dot relies too much on scripted off-the-shelf curriculum. Classroom discipline is a frequent problem, teachers complained; students think they can curse, walk around, write all over their books.
The teachers might feel more uplifted if they heard their students talk about them. Maybe many of these teenagers aren't responding yet to the higher standards, but they clearly sense a profound change in their classes. All of those interviewed -- even the students who liked "the old Locke" better -- praised their teachers without reservation.
"The old teachers used to give us a packet [of work sheets] and tell us to sit down and do it," said Darryl, a junior. "You couldn't ask something, they didn't want to hear from you, they would just sit down and do their own thing." This year, he and fellow junior Lee agree, the teachers are up out of their seats and teaching. They explain things better. They don't mind explaining it again. They treat students respectfully. They offer extra help, during class or after school.
Signs of success
The "new Locke" may have been appreciated most by students who already were aiming to succeed. One junior talked about how the calmer campus, with fewer worries about avoiding fights or being urged to cut classes, made it possible for him to get involved in sports and bring his grades up. New graduate Micheal McElveen had always done well at Locke but had to struggle against the continual uproar to do so. He credits the changes under Green Dot with helping him gain admittance to American University in Washington, D.C., where he'll start in the fall.
As for the less ambitious students, if they're not exactly more ready for college, at least they're getting somewhat more ready for a diploma. This year, significantly more sophomores passed the high school exit exam (the earliest grade the test is administered). And Green Dot introduced a genuinely useful dropout-prevention program, Advance Path, that allows students to make up credits via online courses that they complete at their own pace. It also opened the Opportunities academy, a closely supervised program for youngsters recently released from juvenile detention.
Coleman is frank about the progress at her academies -- and lack of it. The school met its goals on campus safety, she said. And students came to understand and accept, albeit with the usual envelope-pushing, that they would wear uniforms and attend classes once they got to school. The school's truancy rates are significantly lower than last year's.
She agrees with her faculty that teachers received too little support and training and that some floundered as a result. The school never got close to the level of parental involvement that Green Dot has long touted as one of its hallmarks; the outreach coordinator built a small corps of volunteers and stopped there. And she would have liked to do more to make sure that students were truly attending different schools rather than dropping out.
But Coleman, whose "summer vacation" will consist of one week off and shorter workweeks, already has teacher committees in place to address most of these issues. Higher goals are being set for the outreach staff. Class sizes will be 24 to 27 students -- with enough teachers in place to stick to those numbers even if attendance is markedly higher than expected.
What makes Locke different under Green Dot, then, isn't that the charter operator has the magic formula for successful schools. It's that the people in charge don't spend years obfuscating, defending and delaying when things don't work. They do something to fix it.
The future of Locke is in the ninth-grade academies that will add a new freshman class each year until they resemble the usual Green Dot model: small schools built from the freshmen up. These students will have no firsthand knowledge of the old Locke ways. They'll think uniforms are natural. They'll know how to take notes. And, Zuniga hopes, they won't think of finals week as their own personal vacation.
Previous editorials in this series can be found at latimes.com/locke-high.