When the 2008-09 school year begins this fall, Green Dot Public Schools–an organization that runs 12 small charter schools in some of Los Angeles’s poorest neighborhoods–will turn its attention to a new one, Locke Senior High School in Watts. And it will do so with the support of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).
This marks a change in the school district’s attitude, as LAUSD has had a long-running battle with Green Dot over control of some of the state’s lowest-performing schools. But the LAUSD board voted 5-2 last September to turn Locke over to Green Dot.
“We at LAUSD spend $7.7 billion every year, and yet we still have graduation rates that hover between 40 and 50 percent,” explained board president Monica Garcia. “I’m supporting this charter today because I’ve had enough of yesterday.”
Locke ranks among the lowest-performing schools in the state. In 2005, 332 students graduated from a group of 1,318 that began ninth grade together. As Locke senior Alnesha Jones said during the packed school board meeting last fall, “It’s too late for me, but I want my younger brothers and sisters to have a good school and a good education like Green Dot is talking about.”
After a rash of violent episodes at the school and a lack of meaningful reform from LAUSD, last May a majority of tenured teachers at Locke, led by Principal Frank Wells, signed a petition to convert the school to a Green Dot charter. Soon afterward, Wells was fired and teachers were required to go to mandatory meetings to “discuss” the charter school petition.
“The district sent three police officers and an associate superintendent of schools to the school at 6 o’clock at night to escort me off campus and to demand my keys,” Wells explained.
For the rest of the year, Wells was ordered to report to a district office for work.
“They gave me a cubicle next to the restrooms at $600 a day to sit and do nothing,” Wells said.
After the mandatory district meetings, 17 teachers rescinded their signatures on the charter school petition.
By September 2007, a new Los Angeles school board majority, more favorable to charter schools, allowed Green Dot to resubmit the Locke charter conversion plan. In addition, at the September 11 meeting, Green Dot founder Steve Barr and senior school district officials told board members Green Dot had resubmitted letters showing 38 of 71 tenured teachers had reaffirmed their support, pushing Green Dot safely over the 50 percent requirement.
At that meeting the majority of the board approved the plan that will allow Green Dot to divide Locke into small schools of about 500 students. Their model is based on basic tenets such as giving teachers and principals authority over budgets, curricula, and work rules, requiring parental involvement, and keeping schools open longer each day.
“We go into areas, very simply, that have 60, 70 percent drop-out rates, and we reverse that achievement gap,” Barr said. “We retain and graduate 80 to 90 percent of the kids that come in.
“I want all the money at the school site, in the classrooms, paying the best teachers, giving them the best tools,” Barr continued. “You got 30,000 people at LA Unified, for instance, that don’t work at school sites. They’re not teachers, and they’re not support people for teachers.”
Green Dot Revolution
Green Dot keeps its administrative expenses at 6 percent of the total operating budget for managing all schools, and it pays its Los Angeles teachers more than LAUSD does–even though Green Dot receives less money per pupil than do district schools. According to a November 11 Chicago Tribune article, a four-year teacher at Green Dot makes $8,000 more annually than his or her LAUSD counterpart.
The revolution at Locke has implications for other large urban high schools in Los Angeles. Santee Education Complex, another low-performing school in the city, might soon follow in Locke’s footsteps. Teachers at Santee have already had preliminary discussions with Barr.
Green Dot has consistently built new charter high schools near low-performing high schools in Los Angeles, and students have flocked to them. Three years ago, Barr negotiated with district officials about overhauling Jefferson High School in downtown Los Angeles, only to be rebuffed. He then collected 10,000 signatures from parents endorsing Jefferson’s division into several smaller charter schools and marched with 1,000 parents to deliver the petition to district headquarters.
The district refused to turn Jefferson over to Green Dot, but the school board did approve five new Green Dot charters near Jefferson. When those schools opened in the fall of 2005, they enrolled the majority of what would have been Jefferson’s freshman class.
So far, Barr said, demand has far exceeded the supply of Green Dot charter school slots.
Lisa Snell ([email protected]) directs the education program at the Reason Foundation.