Cash for the classrooms

“Sometimes they don’t see how things are.”

-- Handwritten student posting on a bulletin board at Locke High School, explaining why the media don’t always tell the truth about inner-city schools

It requires a second or even a third look at Locke High School to discern the changes this fall, one year after it was taken over by charter operator Green Dot Public Schools. The uniforms are still an ensemble of chinos and polo shirts. The teenagers still gather in the quad for lunch. But almost without exception, the students now wear those uniforms without complaint, unlike last year when they would shrug off the shirts as soon as they thought no one was looking. And instead of huddling on the quad with a few friends in clumps, a large group plays pickup soccer on the grass.

The teachers are still mostly young -- well, one tough year older -- and passionate about the mission of teaching disadvantaged students. The big difference: There are 43 more of them than last year, a 25% increase. And a tour of classrooms -- English, math, chemistry -- shows fewer students in each. Average class sizes, which had hovered in the low 30s last year, are now in the mid-20s.

This isn’t just a change from the year before; it stands in marked contrast to the Los Angeles Unified School District and many other public school systems that have laid off teachers and increased class sizes because of miserable education funding. At the same time, Green Dot maintains order on what was a traditionally unruly campus by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars more on security than most schools.

Many charters use private donations to enhance educational offerings, but Green Dot leaders say they use only public funding for the day-to-day operation of their schools. Part of the Green Dot mission from its inception was to show that charters could offer a superior education with the same resources as public schools. And although Locke has a pool of private grants, it is using that money solely to make the five-year transition from an urban high school of 2,600 students to a series of small academies. Green Dot brought on several of the academies’ principals a year before the takeover, for example, to plan the transition. Money is currently being spent on shop equipment for the new school of architecture, construction and engineering -- a vocational program that will nonetheless put its students through all the courses required for entrance to four-year colleges.

So it is instructive to study the ways in which Green Dot managed to lower class sizes to levels that would be the envy of many more affluent California public schools. Such an examination reveals the years of neglect and mismanagement by L.A. Unified; it also sheds light on the historically inefficient use of revenue in the district that has kept money out of classrooms.

Green Dot lobbied for, and won, extra state funding for Locke under the 2004 Williams settlement, a landmark case in which California agreed to set aside money for low-performing schools after it was accused of shortchanging disadvantaged students. Locke clearly qualified for a share of this money, and it is unclear why L.A. Unified, which for years ignored the festering problems at the Watts school, never helped it obtain the extra cash. Green Dot also went after and received a grant intended for public schools with large populations of students who are not fluent in English.

But these funds account for only a few of the new teachers at Locke. Most of the rest comes from Green Dot’s relentless squeeze on administrative costs. The charter operator takes 6% of the student funding for central office expenses. The rest goes directly to its schools, which decide how to spend it. It is hard to compare administrative costs from one system to another, but a USC study in 2007 concluded that California charter schools put 75% of their money directly into classrooms, compared with 65% in public schools. Green Dot pays its teachers more than they would earn in public schools, but saves money with scaled-back retirement benefits.

The Green Dot system also breaks down the central bureaucracy and gives principals an incentive to watch their pennies. When a window breaks at a Green Dot school, the principal calls around to local businesses for the best deal. When the same thing happens at an L.A. Unified school, the plant manager for the school calls the district’s central service desk, which enters the information into an “asset work management system” and forwards it to the district’s own window-glazing shop -- one of many repair shops operated by the district -- where employees who are paid above prevailing wage will fill the order.

Zeus Cubias, an assistant principal at Locke who spent years there before the takeover, said the school’s previous administrators ordered high-end metal and glass desks for their offices. Not held accountable for smart spending under the district, they saw no reason to scrimp on office furniture. No one knows where those desks went, but the current school offices at Locke are far from elegant.

And because Locke’s truancy rates are about 10 percentage points lower than they were under L.A. Unified, the school gets more per-pupil funding, which is tied to average daily attendance. The school’s history is one in which the population of each class fell off sharply each year because of dropouts and community transiency, but already Green Dot is retaining more students.

Perhaps such hopeful signs are reflected in the English class where students are asked to post on the bulletin board their opinions about the media and urban schools. One reads:

“Locke is not a bad school and most of the students have high ability to learn.”