Locke High School is on the verge of a transformation that didn’t come quite soon enough to prevent this month’s melee involving hundreds of students. Behind the brawl were decades of neglect by the Los Angeles Unified School District. But the swift response by the new school leaders in town -- charter operator Steve Barr and the district’s No. 2 man, Ramon C. Cortines -- brought a seeming promise that the inertia is coming to an end.
Locke has long exemplified the underachievement and safety concerns that ail L.A.'s inner-city schools. Now, preparing for a takeover by Barr’s Green Dot Public Schools, it might become a model of how dramatically a student-centered approach can buoy a foundering school. Already, Barr speaks with encouraging specificity about what it will take to make his students secure and to educate them better: buses to ensure safe passage to and from campus; breaking the school into smaller academies, each with its own cafeteria and staggered lunch hours to limit the number of students loose on campus at any time; a building-trades academy with a college-prep curriculum; engaged teachers who aren’t averse to patrolling the campus if it keeps students safer and saves money for, say, reducing class sizes. Barr is even looking for oak trees to provide more hospitable spots on campus where small groups can gather, instead of the single shady zone where hundreds now crowd together and any toe-stepping can easily get out of hand.
Barr, who has specialized in small campuses that offer an alternative to public schools, has never taken on a challenge like Locke -- a full 2,600-student neighborhood school. Many eyes will be watching whether or how he pulls it off. Among those watching most closely will be Cortines, the district’s senior deputy superintendent, who sees charters not as a drain on his authority but as a template for improving schools districtwide. That alone is so refreshing that it allows for rare optimism about L.A. Unified.
Unlike previous administrators, Cortines did not respond to a crisis at one of his schools with calls for yet another study, or with charts defensively showing that other district schools are improving. He walked the Locke campus and afterward spoke frankly about students wandering the halls without passes and teachers running movies for their classes rather than instructing them. (One parent calls the school the “ghetto cineplex.”) At Locke and throughout the district, he said, there is an alarming inconsistency. Some teachers strive heroically to educate, while others preside over classroom card games.
Cortines was equally straightforward about how the district has failed Locke. After Barr won approval last fall to take over the school, administrators washed their hands of it, cutting security staffing by half. Classroom fights became frequent, and teachers’ calls for help went unanswered.
Administrators have known for years how bad things are at Locke, where more than half the students drop out and only 13% test as proficient in math. They just haven’t done much about it. Several years ago, dedicated teachers drew up a plan to transform the school. Approved by the local district, it then disappeared within the central office. Cortines already has empowered local superintendents to reform their schools without seeking downtown approval at every step. He bluntly says L.A.'s schools must view charters competitively if they want to hold on to their students.
The new senior deputy superintendent faces a daunting task. It’s harder to force change when labor contracts are larded with rigid work rules and make it virtually impossible to fire apathetic employees. But as long as leaders like Barr and Cortines engage in clear, honest talk instead of excuses and obfuscation, there’s hope that education will trump bureaucracy at L.A. Unified.