Sunday, August 04, 2013

A Inside Perspective on Locke High School

To understand what I’m talking about, read this from the newest person to join my email list, Bruce Smith, a long-time teacher who helped lead the famous teacher revolution at perhaps the most notorious school in the entire country, Locke High School in LA (which I covered extensively in my blog: see here,hereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehere, and here; also, see the books,Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America (which I wrote about here) and Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors: Fighting for the Soul of America's Toughest High School, which I wrote aboutherehere, and here). Here’s what he writes about the situation at Locke pre-takeover:

In old Locke (by this I mean Locke before the Green Dot takeover, which started 2008 July 1st), we had a variety of teachers, some quite good, many mediocre, and a few appalling. The school administrator who led the rebellion with me felt that his worst teacher was a social studies teacher, whom I'll call Mr. T. I taught (among other things) AP English, and so have access to several of the best students in the school. One, who later went to Berkeley, told me of an extreme episode in summer school. She was so angry with Mr. T's refusal to teach anything that she used her cellphone (then a rather new device for a student in Watts) to record him. He was supposedly teaching an American history course (some careless counselor had neglected to sign her up for it during the school year, and she could not have gone to college without fulfilling that requirement), but wouldn't even attempt instruction; she recorded him spending the whole class period watching a World Cup match in French during her American history class!

The school administrator once showed me a notebook full of documentation of his attempts to remove this teacher from old Locke – a binder two inches thick -- but the average cost to remove a tenured teacher from an LAUSD school in those days was $400,000, and most principals would be likely pushed out (we'd had five in the six years I spent there before our revolt, and had two more imposed on us in the year after the school administrator was sacked) before they could remove the dead wood, so even making an effort to remove this extreme non-teaching is deserving of some credit.

Below is a longer email from Bruce about his story with Locke and afterward.

I've just finished going through that rather long email you sent me earlier. At the very bottom, the KIPP video finishes with the quote from Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." I believe that the core group of rebel educators at Locke High School in the middle of the last decade were one such group.

At Locke, I was an English teacher (who was later promoted to department chair, and beyond). I met another, younger English teacher, Chad Soleo, a Teach For America alumnus who had just finished his first year of teaching, during the summer of 2002, when we worked on a project (with four other English teachers) to better align the curriculum in our English department. When the full faculty returned in the autumn, we were asked by our local superintendent, Dr. Sylvia Rousseau, to stand up; we were publicly complimented in front of the full faculty; and then, after applause, we were told to sit down, because we were going to proceed her way, not ours.

But Chad and I became friends through the process, and we spent time the next year musing about what we would do with Locke High School, the lowest scoring regular (non-continuation) high school in the state of California, if we could ever get control of it. These conversations were not completely vain -- Dr. Rousseau was inspired by some of the small schools within large traditional public school buildings that had sprung up in New York City, and she wanted to similarly divide Locke into a set of small learning communities; and she also hired the Coalition of Essential Schools, Ted Sizer's organization, to come out and work with us, thereby again encouraging teachers to take more control of their own campus.

Chad told me about a charter school operator, Steve Barr, whom he had heard when he graduated with his master's degree from Loyola Marymount. In those days Steve's organization, Green Dot Public Schools, was the most teacher-friendly and democratic of all the CMOs in Los Angeles, so the possibility of really taking control of the campus and changing the school for the better for our students didn't seem as far-fetched as it might have sounded in most cases. I urged Chad to invite Steve to Locke; but Steve was difficult to get hold of, and it took a couple of years, believe it or not, to make it happen.

Chad sailed up the career ladder at LAUSD, and had become an assistant principal after only four years of teaching; I was also promoted, but more slowly. In early 2006, we succeeded in finally getting Steve Barr on campus; my understanding is that Steve was persona non grata at all L.A. Unified schools, which had a lot to do with why it was so difficult to meet him. But by then Chad was an AP, and I a department chair, so we got Steve onto the agenda of a curriculum council meeting of department chairs, and Steve had about 15 minutes to pitch some of the middle managers of the school about his idea to transform a failing inner city high school if Green Dot could ever get hold of one. Another AP came in and got Steve out of the room in a hurry, but I found an excuse to hustle outside and track him down; after a brief conversation he invited me to a meeting at another local high school where he was scheduled to speak with a faculty the next week.

When I showed up at that high school, its principal had called an emergency, mandatory faculty meeting, so none of the teachers Green Dot had been hoping to meet were present; so just one teacher from another school and I were the only ones present to have a detailed presentation and discussion of Green Dot's transformation plan for Belmont High School (the LAUSD school of the mandatory emergency meeting), and I quickly realized that this just might work at Locke High School.

I'll try to be briefer with the rest of the story. Green Dot chose, in spite of our recruitment of it, to focus its attempts on taking over Jefferson High School, rather than Locke, in the spring of 2006, an effort that ultimately failed. But a new LAUSD superintendent, David Brewer, took over at LAUSD, and he actively engaged Green Dot with the possibility of taking over one of three high schools, Locke among them. Talks ultimately broke down, but Locke was starting to lose valuable faculty to Green Dot, including Chad, who became founding principal of Green Dot's Animo Pat Brown, the most successful new school Green Dot ever started and one almost entirely staffed by former Locke teachers (most of whom were TFA alumni). I and others hated what we saw as the potential for slow deterioration at Locke, which had significantly improved during my first five years on campus (I had eight years of teaching prior to coming to Locke, at a private school in Santa Monica and overseas, in South Korea); so we reached out to Green Dot again, recruited Dr. Wells to switch sides and join with us on Green Dot's side, circulated a petition that showed a majority of our tenured faculty supported Green Dot's petition to transform Locke High School via its charter, and, after a drawn-out, acrimonious, controversial struggle that was thoroughly covered by the Los Angeles TimesNew York Times, and even overseas publications (I remember reading in shock an account about our struggles in The Economist as I was eating a breakfast donut a couple of blocks from school one morning), we won the right to convert Locke High School into a chartered school managed by Green Dot Public Schools. (A book, Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors, tells the story in more detail, should you care to read about it.)

The conversion of Locke High School had broad repercussions. Among others, it was followed by the Public School Choice movement inside the Los Angeles Unified School District, which briefly made it possible for schools throughout Los Angeles Unified to convert to chartered status while remaining under district management or outside of it; and it inspired the Parent Trigger legislation, conceived by my friend Ben Austin, whom I met the day I crossed the street to speak, representing Locke's rebel teachers, at a press conference, on May 10, 2007, and written by Senator Gloria Romero, whose staff asked me to testify in front of her Senate Education Committee on the conditions of urban high schools in Los Angeles (the hearing never took place because of a state government budget shutdown, and because our struggle for Locke proved victorious, which removed the need for the hearing), and now spreading throughout the United States. The Locke story also led to accolades from the U.S. Department of Education; a book, cited above; and movies: a documentary, Waiting for Superman, part of which was shot at Locke, and a feature film, Won't Back Down, seen by relatively few people but with a main character, a teacher who decides to work with an outraged parent to take control of a school, who in a number of ways appears directly parallel to me.

The real-life epilogue for me, however, has been less glorious than that of the movie. I worked with Green Dot in its home office during 2008 and 2009; was laid off (along with four vice presidents, among others) in response to the sharp drop in philanthropy that followed the Great Recession; exhausted the grant money our board had won from the Walton Family Foundation in our thus-far unsuccessful attempt to open a school, One World Secondary; briefly headed a chartered school, South Bay Preparatory, in Silicon Valley that featured a one-laptop-per-student, project-based learning approach, but which failed largely due to the difficulties of finding affordable, appropriate school space in Silicon Valley, coupled with California's miserable chartered school funding rates; and have since, other than some blogging and some grant-reading work for the U.S. Department of Education, scratched out an inadequate living by tutoring here in Irvine, something that can pay pretty well in Korea (that's how I earned most of my money there), but pays much less well here in America (at least, in California).

The epilogue for Locke is brighter: hundreds more students have graduated from Locke over the last five years than would have had we teachers not taken action, and that trend will, I hope, continue, far into the future. 

Sorry if I've bored you; but you wanted to know something about me, and now you do. I'm moderately well known on the internet, was twice introduced as "the famous Bruce Smith" (which I found amazing at the time), but have since sunk back into obscurity; but there is probably enough independent information about me out there to vouch for the truth of my account.

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