As Locke High School prepares for its third year as a charter school, operator Green Dot Public Schools has earned some bragging rights — as well as reasons for humility. There's no doubt that students at the Watts school are better off for the Green Dot takeover. Dropout and truancy rates are down significantly; more students are taking college-prep classes and passing the high school exit exam on the first try. Crime, especially on-campus fighting, is considerably lower. Scores on the state's standardized tests rose modestly this year.
Yet Locke's students are far from even mediocre achievement. Only 15% score as proficient or better in English, and only 6.7% in math, and that follows a year in which scores barely budged at all. By the end of 10th grade, only 72% of the students who started as freshmen at Locke were still attending the school — though that's higher than when it was run by L.A. Unified. Still, the numbers are nowhere close to as impressive as at other Green Dot schools, where early and dramatic successes earned the charter operator a reputation as a miracle worker.
Locke is different from those schools, and from almost every other charter school in California. It doesn't enroll students through a lottery, a system that tends to draw the most motivated students and parents. Instead, it takes all students within its attendance boundaries.
Green Dot deserves appreciation for taking the challenge and for bringing about progress on several fronts. It rightly made reducing the dropout rate its first priority, and some of its lack of progress on test scores might in fact be the result of its success in keeping more troubled students in school. But standardized tests do count; the charter school movement in general, and Green Dot leaders in particular, criticized slow-to-improve scores at public schools for too long to now claim that it's unfair to emphasize those scores. No school should be judged on a year of test scores, or even two, but for the Locke experiment to be called a success, the next two to three years will have to bring more impressive gains.
Similarly, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa early on predicted an ambitious 30-point rise in Academic Performance Index scores for the 10 schools that fell under his purview. Though there have been marked improvements in test scores at a couple of the schools, others have struggled.
Like Green Dot, the mayor's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools has made a conscientious effort to improve the educational lot of some of the most underserved students in the region. But we hope the reform movement will take the experiences at these schools to heart. The task of raising achievement among low-income, black and Latino students — those most likely to be left behind academically or to drop out altogether — is a complicated one. We're tired of hearing teachers complain that lack of parental involvement and the strains of poverty and crime make it impossible for schools to bring about better results. It is not impossible, and many dedicated teachers have been proving that over and over. But it is tremendously challenging. Supposedly quick solutions — convert failing schools into charters, fire half the teachers — aren't so quick, and often aren't solutions at all.
Raising achievement requires the patience to support teachers and schools through years of sustained, concentrated effort — the kind we think Green Dot is up to providing at Locke. It requires money — Green Dot has been pouring its resources, including private donations, into Locke, money that public schools don't have. And it requires the humility to realize that, in education, things always look easier from the outside.