Changing the fortunes of a troubled Watts high school


Innovating school reform
Intro: Reinventing public schools across the U.S.
Part I: Changing fortunes of troubled Watts high school
Part II: Nonprofit attempts makeover at Crenshaw
Part III: Marketplace-of-schools model reigns in Chicago
Part IV: Boston University manages entire district
In the Watts district of South Los Angeles, Green Dot is stepping into uncharted territory at Locke High School. Just before Green Dot's takeover earlier this year, a 600-student riot broke out in May, a situation that added an exclamation point to Locke High's troubles: the ever-present low test scores, gangs, graffiti and racial tensions. Locke may be Green Dot’s biggest test. The school organization is primarily known for creating successful schools, and its formula of rigorous academics and parental support has usually been applied to students who voluntarily sign up for Green Dot’s schools. Locke is not filled with those kinds of kids. Many see Green Dot's innovation as a possible blue print for school reform nationwide. The school has been divided into eight smaller schools with specific academic themes. And a nation appears to be scrutinizing Green Dot’s every move.

ABC News’ 20/20 and NBC’s Dateline, magazines such as Time and other media are interested in touring Locke, interviewing teachers and administrators and getting up close to Steve Barr, Green Dot founder and chief executive officer, said Judy Davidds-Wright, Green Dot’s director of public affairs and community partnerships.

Called the Locke High School Transformation Project, many hope the efforts result in a rebirth for the school.

Restoring Locke may be Green Dot’s biggest test yet. The school ranks among the lowest-performing schools in the state. In 2005, 332 students graduated from a class that four years earlier, as ninth-graders, had 1,318 students, and a mere 143 students qualified for admission to the University of California and California State University systems. And for years, Locke has failed to meet state performance benchmarks, with most students posting scores of "below basic" or "far below basic" on standardized tests.

The school’s endemic failures were further documented by the book "Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches With Teach for America," which tracked the lives of four first-year teachers at Locke High School. Author Donna Foote, a former Newsweek correspondent, spent a year at the more-than-troubled high school and describes the highs and lows of the young teachers and their students. Locke was portrayed in a less-than-favorable light in a very public way.

“We’re trying to change the story,” said Davidds-Wright. And transparency is the name of the game. “We want everyone to know what’s going on at Locke High,” she said. “There are a lot of people who think that we’re being overly-ambitious with this school, but we think just the opposite…This is our chance to really show that black and brown kids from less-than-favorable circumstances and backgrounds can succeed. It’s just that this system is broken and we have to be innovative, we have to change if we want to see change.”