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Opinion

Locke High’s slow and steady turnaround

Three years ago, the last graduating class of the “old” Locke High School listened to a commencement speaker whose main thrust was that only a small number of students had made it to that point. Odd words at most graduation ceremonies, but appropriate at Locke. Under the management of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the number of graduates at this public school in Watts was regularly a fraction of the number of students who had started out as ninth-graders.

The class of 2008 started with 1,451 freshmen, according to the state’s education database. Only 595 made it to their sophomore year. About 350 ultimately walked at graduation — but just 261 of them actually received diplomas.

The following fall, after a bitter battle, charter operator Green Dot Public Schools took over Locke. And last week, the “new” Locke High graduated its third class. These were the last students to have experienced Locke as a public school, back when they were freshmen, and the last to represent Locke High School as a whole; younger students have been placed in small, individual academies on campus, each of which reports separately to the state. So this is a final chance to compare state figures on the school before and after the takeover.

How did Green Dot do at stemming the tide of students who disappear from campus into lives usually plagued by high unemployment and low wages? Solidly better, but not the quick and extraordinary transformation everyone had hoped for. Not yet, anyway.

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Charter schools are not the ultimate solution to bad public schools; rather, the solution lies in improving public schools so that they have adequate resources, good teachers and a stimulating curriculum. Like many charter operators, Green Dot has had financial help from outside foundations, help that isn’t available to most public schools.

Still, well-run charter schools have played a valuable role in pressuring public schools to improve, and they can be a lifeline to students who are sinking in crummy neighborhood schools or, in many cases, leaving school far too soon. In the case of Locke, the switch appears to be working, albeit more slowly and haltingly than Green Dot expected.

The charter operator deserves praise for its massive and earnest effort at Locke. It was the first charter school in Los Angeles to accept all of the students within its attendance boundaries, just as public schools do, rather than restricting enrollment and accepting students through a lottery. Students who choose their charter schools are motivated to follow the rules and achieve; public schools take all comers. The Locke takeover served as the model for L.A. Unified’s Public School Choice initiative, in which new schools and some failing schools were turned over to outside groups that filed the most promising applications. Some of those were groups of teachers, others were charter schools. All had to follow Green Dot’s example and admit all students within their enrollment boundaries.

Green Dot reports that it graduated 358 seniors at Locke on Thursday; it started with 617 sophomores. (The size of this class as freshmen isn’t counted because Green Dot had no influence over those students.) That’s a graduation rate of about 58%.

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Not so great, right? In fact, if Locke’s numbers don’t improve in coming years, its graduation rate would be considered unacceptable. But lined up against the same data from the L.A. Unified-run Locke, this figure represents substantial improvement. In 2008, the graduating class was 44% of what it had been in sophomore year. In 2007, even worse: about 32%.

These numbers don’t tell the full story of how many students drop out or stay in school for a diploma. Locke, where nearly all the students are either black or Latino and most of them are low-income, is located in a highly transient neighborhood in a highly transient district; more than a fourth of the students move every year. Those numbers have probably accelerated in the last few years as families left the Los Angeles area for more affordable areas with better job prospects.

Green Dot retained most of its first sophomores through the beginning of senior year: 560 of the original 617, a remarkably high number for Locke. But by the end of the year, almost 90 of those seniors disappeared, and Green Dot officials don’t know why or what happened to them. Another 110 or so lacked the credits to graduate, but Green Dot says those students all have individual plans for earning the needed credits over the next year and will be back. But Green Dot has kept substantially more students in school, and it did so while raising standards and prodding far more students into a college-preparatory curriculum. Attendance was higher. Far fewer students wandered the campus or left it during class time. A program that allowed students to make up courses through self-paced computer instruction helped many of those at high risk of dropping out get the credits they needed. Passing rates on the high school exit exam rose significantly (though it’s worth noting that L.A. Unified’s pass rates also made impressive gains this year). Meanwhile, retention rates appear higher so far at the small Locke academies that have been growing grade by grade since fall 2008.

Green Dot did not pull off quick academic miracles, but these are all signs of long-overdue hope for students who have had too little.


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