The principal of one of Los Angeles' most troubled high schools lashed out at the city school system Thursday, saying the behemoth organization is resistant to dramatic reforms needed at his campus and other low-performing schools.
"It is criminal to allow a school to continue on year after year, the way this one has," said Frank Wells, head of Locke High School in South Los Angeles. "I went to Locke thinking I could turn it around, but I ran into a brick wall."
Wells' comments came in an impromptu, impassioned speech given at a charter school in Inglewood run by Green Dot Public Schools -- one of the state's leading operators of publicly funded, independently run charter schools.
Until talks broke down last month, Green Dot founder Steve Barr had been negotiating with Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. David L. Brewer and school board President Marlene Canter over a sweeping reform plan that would have divided Locke, near Watts, into several smaller schools. The two sides could not agree on how much autonomy Green Dot would have in running the schools.
Barr said he invited Wells to visit Green Dot's Animo Inglewood campus in light of the failed discussions with the district's top leadership that had neglected to include Locke administrators or teachers.
"No one who was actually from Locke, and Green Dot had been talking," Barr said. "I'm hoping this leads to some communication about what to do about the school."
Neither Barr nor Wells would elaborate on where that discussion might lead. But one likely possibility is that Green Dot will try to convert Locke into a charter school. For that to occur, a majority of the permanent teachers at the school -- those with two or more years' experience -- would have to agree to the idea, according to state law.
"Nothing is going to change in the lives of [Locke's] kids unless we do something revolutionary overnight," Wells said.
His words took on particular significance because U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings was also visiting the Green Dot school and listened intently as Wells spoke in a room full of parents and teachers. Afterward, she introduced herself to Wells and reiterated her request to legislators to toughen the language of the federal No Child Left Behind Act to make it easier to overhaul chronically low-performing schools.
Wells said he had accepted Barr's invitation in order to see one of the Green Dot schools that has had success in raising student performance. He expressed deep frustration over what he said is the unwillingness or inability of district leaders to push through meaningful reforms.
While going out of his way to emphasize that there are many effective teachers at Locke, Wells highlighted the district's failure to put its best teachers in its worst schools, where they are needed most. More funding, he said, is not the solution.
"The more you fail, the more money they throw at you," he said. "We're filthy rich; I don't want any more of your money. Send me quality teachers."
Dan Isaacs, chief operating officer of the school district, acknowledged that "there is no question that we have some schools that are more difficult to staff than others." But he said the district channels additional resources to the neediest schools in an effort to better prepare teachers.
"Is it enough?" he said. "No, we need to move further."