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A New Look at Locke

An exclusive excerpt from the new book Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors.

There are an estimated 5,000 broken schools nationwide, many of which have academic proficiency rates in the single digits and dropout rates above 50 percent. There are currently 733 schools being turned around nationwide, thanks to a $3.5 billion Obama education program. This is the story of one school-Locke High School, located in South Central Los Angeles, that is now in its third year of turnaround.

In September 2007, after years of failed improvement efforts, the elected Los Angeles Unified School District school board approved a controversial petition to give control over troubled Locke to a small charter organization called Green Dot, which had over the previous eight years created 12 small charter schools in some of LA's worst neighborhoods. In this exclusive excerpt from This Week in Education blogger Alexander Russo's new book, Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors: Fighting for the Soul of America's Toughest High School, Russo looks at that rare beast: the successful turnaround. The long-suffering school was reorganized and-eventually-revived. Though it remains the neighborhood high school, the campus was converted into small, autonomous charter schools each with its own principal and annual school ratings.

As the 8:00 a.m. starting time approached, a stream of nearly 2,500 black and Latino students flowed toward Locke High School from every direction. Off the bus, out of parents' cars, or (mostly) on foot, the throng passed the school's electric marquee and a couple of squad cars and TV news trucks before finally reaching the front gate. Some seemed too small and young to be in high school; others seemed impossibly adult. The main building loomed three stories over the entrance, concrete cinder block painted a faded baby blue.

Not all of the arriving students were allowed to pass inside, however. Several stood in little clusters off to both sides of the gate unbuckling their belts and shoving the tails of their polo shirts down into khaki pants. ‘‘Come on, handsome, get that thing tucked in,'' said 6'3" Green Dot founder Steve Barr to a thin boy. ‘‘If I can do this, so can you.'' Indeed, the maverick school reformer was wearing a tucked-in dress shirt and a blue blazer rather than his usual rumpled outfit. Once inside, the teens tugged their shirts and rearranged their belongings like airline travelers after going through security.

The Watts high school had been in bad shape in 2007, when Barr's upstart charter school network persuaded the principal and a majority of teachers to back legal separation from the school district. Now, a year and half later, it was the first day of the first year of the ‘‘new'' Locke and a dream come true for Barr, the co-founder of "Rock the Vote" and veteran of several Democratic presidential campaigns.

The new school featured freshly painted halls, an inner courtyard filled with trees and grass (thanks to Cameron Diaz), and—most important—classrooms filled with teachers who really wanted to be there, including lots of familiar faces. (Many of the younger teachers and about a quarter of the veterans had returned.) The sprawling campus had been divided into five different schools, each with its own principal, schedule, and set of classrooms. The largest school, known informally as Big Locke, was housed in the main building and would serve sophomores, juniors, and seniors. The smaller schools, known as "baby" Lockes, were scattered across campus and would at first serve only freshmen and some sophomores. The uniform requirement was intended to make it easy to identify Locke students and eliminate the baggy-shirted gangbanger look. There had been some heated debate among staff about whether it was necessary or could actually be enforced, but they had all agreed that it was important to make a clean break with the past and stand together. ‘‘It could have been anything,'' said veteran Locke math teacher Fernando Avila. ‘‘Long-sleeved shirts, whatever. We just have to enforce something!''

Some things hadn't changed, however: Any local kid who wanted to come could register at any time during the year. Locke was still the neighborhood high school.

Over at another gate stood rookie assistant Zeus Cubias, the 34-year-old former Locke math teacher who had been tapped to help oversee the returning Locke students. He had long, wavy brown hair, small hoop earrings in each ear, a closely trimmed goatee, and chunky glasses. A tiny microphone was perched on his lapel courtesy of the camera crew from Nightline, just one of several media outlets on campus.

The decision to promote the impulsive and disorganized Cubias had surprised some when it had been announced the previous spring. ‘‘You sure you want this guy on board?'' one colleague had asked. ‘‘I'm still waiting on grades from him from first semester.'' But the El Salvadoran-born teacher had grown up near Locke back when Watts was still mostly black, graduated from Locke the year of the Rodney King riots, gone on to a four-year college, and returned to Locke as a teacher and coach. He knew every nook and cranny of the campus and got along with nearly everybody—black, white, and Latino. He was also extremely passionate about the school. "I love this place,'' he said, standing in the quad looking out over the kids during lunch. ‘‘I love being here.''

The only thing Cubias didn't like about his new job was the constant stream of administrative meetings; they seemed like wastes of time, dangerous distractions from what was going on in the halls and classrooms. About the new rules brought in by Green Dot, his new bosses, there were a whole host of things he didn't like: the uniforms, the 90-minute class periods, the clerical staff they'd been forced to keep on, the slew of armed private security guards, and the black tarps that had been attached to the chain-link fences to divide Locke into separate schools and protect students from being harassed by anyone on the surrounding streets. They shrouded the school like some sort of Christo-style public art installation.

Cubias wasn't shy about voicing his complaints, but he knew from nearly a decade on campus that Locke wasn't going to get better while it was still part of the massive school district and powerful teachers union. He was willing to go along with Green Dot if it meant making Locke better. He'd gotten his first tattoo, Christ the Redeemer superimposed over the nearby Watts Towers, to commemorate his decision to stay. And if there ever was a movie version of the Locke turnaround story he wanted Johnny Depp to play him.

Over the next two years Cubias and Barr would be featured in The New Yorker and Waiting for Superman. But what neither knew that first week was that the Locke turnaround effort-one of roughly a thousand such attempts going on nationwide-would be as challenging for them individually as it was for the school as a whole. At various points along the way it appeared that they, and the school, might not make it.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors: Fighting for the Soul of America's Toughest High School, by Alexander Russo. Copyright © 2011 by Alexander Russo.

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