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Rewriting the Locke story

May 20, 2008|Donna Foote | Donna Foote is a former Newsweek correspondent whose new book, "Relentless Pursuit, a Year in the Trenches With Teach for America," chronicles the experiences of four Teach for America recruits assigned to Locke High School.

Violence broke out earlier this month at troubled Locke High School in South Los Angeles. The melee apparently started out as a prearranged schoolyard fight between rival tagging crews, or cliques -- one black, the other Latino. It spiraled out of control, eventually involving as many as 600 students -- nearly a quarter of the student body.

Camera crews converged on the scene, recording the all-too-familiar charge of baton-wielding police in riot gear as they crossed the scruffy campus, cop choppers whirring overhead. The headlines were predictable: "Hundreds brawl at L.A. high school, broken up by police," announced the Associated Press. "Black vs. Brown at L.A. School," said Time magazine.

The media got the news but missed the story.

The real story -- the story that should be making headlines -- is that only 2% of Locke ninth-graders are proficient in algebra and only 11% read at grade level. The dropout rate is high, the graduation rate shockingly low. After spending a year at Locke shadowing four teachers, I can honestly say that I never met a student there who didn't want to learn. But in 2005, out of a class that started ninth grade about 1,000 strong, only 240 graduated, and of those, 30 were eligible to apply to a California state university. The kids at Locke may not be able to do the math, but we can: For every 100 students who entered the ninth grade in 2001, three graduated with what they needed to go to college.

Figuring out what happened to their classmates doesn't require a high school diploma. An unacceptably high number are dead or in prison.

The fact that kids at Locke -- and schools like it in poor minority neighborhoods -- are being denied access to a quality education is old hat to anyone familiar with the history of urban education in America. Locke, like the TV weatherman in the movie "Groundhog Day," has been trapped in a time loop, doomed to relive the same dreary day over and over.

Once a beacon of hope in a neighborhood blighted by the Watts riots of 1965, for too many years now Locke has been a poster child for everything wrong with education in Los Angeles' poor neighborhoods. Its kids study behind prison-like gates on a litter-strewn campus that serves as an inviting canvas for competing tagging crews. The school doesn't offer much in the way of extracurricular activities beyond its sports teams, but it is host to an on-site police station with two officers and a fully utilized open-air space for all the kids caught in its daily truancy sweeps. Reforms and programs have come and gone as quickly as the teachers and administrators assigned to implement them. The only constant has been low academic achievement.

And violence. It's tempting to assign the trouble at Locke to the gang activity on the streets that sometimes jumps the fence, and the racial tension that has accompanied its transition from 100% black to 65% Latino. But the truth is, the number of active gang members attending school is small, and campus skirmishes have as much to do with teenage bravado and inadequate adult supervision as they do with race. When only 3% of Locke students are receiving the education required to get a toehold on the American dream, should we be surprised at a melee on the quad? After all, as education reformers would observe, if only 3% of the garbage in L.A. were being picked up, there would be rioting in the streets.

But change is afoot. On July 1, Green Dot Public Schools, the upstart charter school organization that has been challenging the orthodoxy and efficacy of the Los Angeles Unified School District, will officially take control of Locke. The plan is to deconstruct the big, failing behemoth into small, safe learning communities -- some on campus, some off -- each with its own principal and select staff. Green Dot schools offer a rigorous college prep curriculum with local control and maximum funding to the classroom. Parent participation is mandatory.

Green Dot is betting that it can raise student achievement (not too hard, because there is nowhere to go but up) and showcase Locke as a model of reform. Based on results at its 12 existing schools, Green Dot predicts that 80% of Locke students will graduate in four years and that 70% will go to four-year colleges.

That's a tall order. "All eyes are on us," conceded Marco Petruzzi, Green Dot's president. "With Locke, we are tackling one of the toughest problems in education. This is it. The little-steps-at-a-time approach to education reform doesn't work. We need radical reform. Locke next year will be 100% different from Locke this year."

One can only hope. The Locke story needs a new headline.

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