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Portrait of a Turnaround Effort

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From guest blogger Lesli A. Maxwell:

With so much talk coming out of Washington about "turning around" the nation's chronically failing schools, especially from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the Los Angeles Times offers an insightful look at the efforts of one charter management organization to do just that at Locke High School, a long-troubled campus in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Green Dot Public Schools, which operates several charter schools in the poorer parts of Los Angeles, took over Locke last fall following a big battle with the Los Angeles Unified School District and United Teachers Los Angeles. The first year has presented lots of challenges, but the LA Times reports there are signs that school conditions and academic achievement are beginning to get better. Perhaps the most important change so far is in the school's culture: Students told the Times reporter repeatedly that classroom instruction is better and that most of their teachers expect them to achieve.

Steve Barr, Green Dot's founder, has a lot riding on how things go at Locke. His efforts are an important test case of whether a charter management organization can rescue an inner-city high school from decades of failure. Barr, who supports Secretary Duncan's call for charters to play a big role in transforming the nation's worst schools, is hoping to import his efforts at Locke to struggling high schools in the District of Columbia. Barr, who seems to be everywhere these days, also just inked a three-year, tenure-free contract with the New York City teacher's union for the charter school they are jointly operating in the Bronx.

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The Times article makes it clear that Green Dot spent $700,000 on security for the year and that most of its teachers are young, high-energy and overworked (as well as uncredentialed); one is described as working 12-hour days. The story also reports -- no surprise -- high teacher turnover.

It's naive to treat those as incidental points. Any school would be safer if the budget included $700,000 for security. And brand-new, very young teachers working 12-hour days can project high expectations -- but can they sustain the energy? Sorry to be such a skeptic, but how many times is the press going to buy into the same old "it's a miracle!" hype?

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