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Green Dot Public Schools, the charter operator that has gained a big reputation for small high schools, a college-prep curriculum and fast growth, opens its latest newsmaking venture today: a reinvented Locke High School. The teachers have been hired and trained. The students are preregistered, their textbooks in hand. The center quad has been replanted. Everything is ready.

Or is it? This isn't just an era of reform for Locke High, with its own reputation for student fisticuffs and an appallingly high dropout rate. It also represents a risky new ambition for Green Dot, which pressed the Los Angeles Unified School District into allowing the takeover after collecting signatures from many of Locke's teachers.

At other Green Dot schools, students enrolled by choice; parents enthusiastically signed up to win seats for their children in the new, 500-student schools, which promised safer campuses and more rigorous classwork than they found in their local public schools. But in Locke's Watts neighborhood, families weren't offered Green Dot as an option; Green Dot became the local public school. Unless parents were willing to send their children to more-distant campuses, Green Dot was what they had. And although the charter operator has done what it can to reorganize the school into smaller, more intimate "academies," Locke opens with 1,600 students.

Wide range of opinion

Two weeks ago, teenagers gathered outside the front gate for preregistration. After the back-to-school ritual of hugging and squealing with delight at seeing each other again, they and their parents settled into alphabetical lines -- and voiced a wide range of opinions about whether the change at Locke was for the better.

Even among supporters, there were complaints. Why did they have to stand in the hot sun for registration, when they used to get their class schedules in the mail? (The school wanted to make sure students had everything from textbooks to transportation in advance so that on the first day, they'd be ready for learning.) What were these crazy schedules with different classes on different days? (Green Dot is introducing block schedules for some days, in which students take fewer classes for longer periods.)

The pro-charter faction foresaw the kind of school that middle-class students get. One senior who already had taken Advanced Placement classes was looking forward to a college-focused atmosphere. His only concern was that there might not be room at the school for his little brother, who's entering his freshman year. Unlike public schools, Green Dot can close enrollment when it's full.

A mother of two Locke students was thrilled; she might have been quoting from a Green Dot manual as she recited the benefits. The campus would be a haven from the turmoil of the streets. With parents required to volunteer, the students would get the message that education is important. The uniforms -- polo shirts, khaki pants -- would get kids away from gang attire and maybe away from gang behavior. Her children would graduate "college-ready."

Those are the kinds of families Green Dot is accustomed to drawing. But it has a lot of convincing to do at Locke. Many students entering their first classes today opposed the takeover. There was nothing wrong with the school the way it was, they said -- a sad reflection of their low expectations, considering the arson fires, the frequent fights and a 2008 graduating class of slightly more than 300, compared with the 1,500 who had started four years before.

These students didn't want the school split into smaller academies, fearing that Green Dot was trying to break up their friendships and destroy whatever unity the campus enjoyed. Many had no interest in taking the courses required for attending a four-year college. "I'm a senior this year," one said. "They can't make me."

And hardly anyone liked the uniforms. Even parents complained. "You can dress them up in black and khaki all you want," one mother said, "and they'll still be gangbangers."

Why were they here, then? Most of the teenagers said some of their friends would still be at Locke, so they had signed up as well. Or that Locke was conveniently located in their neighborhood. Or that they were juniors or seniors and the prospect of starting at an unfamiliar school was too daunting or depressing.

A possible blueprint

There's a lot of talk among educators about charter schools being laboratories of innovation. That's true enough, but it's one thing to make progress with students who voluntarily sign up for a rigorous academic environment and whose parents actively support the endeavor. Green Dot's experience with Locke's many doubt-filled teens will provide a more realistic measure of what charter schools can do for poor and minority students who typically have lower test scores and higher dropout rates. And if it succeeds, Green Dot will have created a blueprint for public schools.

If it fails, it won't be for lack of trying. Principal Ronnie Coleman has painstakingly hired each teacher. The staff has attended retreats together and been trained in how to instill discipline. (All staff monitor the hallways during class changes to make sure students aren't cutting classes or getting into trouble; it's better to walk around the classroom than to sit at a desk.) Green Dot CEO Steve Barr didn't fill the quad with the oak trees he'd envisioned, but on registration day, workers were busy planting 16 century-old olive trees that, just as he'd hoped, made the grassy area a shaded, inviting place for students to gather.

Perhaps most promising, the biggest Green Dot fans among those registering were generally the ones who had enrolled in summer school and were impressed by what had been wrought in a short time: Students were neatly dressed and better behaved. Graffiti, a perpetual plague last year despite conscientious repainting, had virtually disappeared. As a security guard described the summer, "The kids walked around with smiles on their faces." The new Locke High School now must find a way to spread that sense of optimism among all of its students.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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