Schoolhouse Rock

Locke High: The Real Charter Challenge

The new union-friendly charter school in the Bronx

I wrote about last week

is not the only big project that

Green Dot Public Schools

has taken on this fall. The other is the attempted transformation of Locke High School in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. The school, which currently has about 2,500 students, has long been notorious as one of the worst in the city, with what the

L.A. Times

recently described

as a “reputation for student fisticuffs and an appallingly high dropout rate.”

Green Dot was founded by Steve Barr, a garrulous, outspoken Irish American in his late 40s who helped start Rock the Vote in 1990 and nine years later decided his role in life was to run high schools. His organization now manages 10 of them, mostly in L.A., and his new mission is to transform the way public education works in the city (and then in the rest of the country).

Barr is a bit of a bomb-thrower, and Locke is his most recent incendiary device. Two years ago, with the support of a few hundred dissatisfied parents of Locke students, he persuaded more than half of the Locke faculty to sign a petition calling for the L.A. Unified School District to turn the school over to Green Dot’s control, and in September 2007, the school district reluctantly handed over the keys . Barr hopes to show the district that he can run a big urban high school better than it can. And he hopes to show the L.A. teachers union that the bare-bones 33-page contract that Green Dot’s unionized teachers sign is a lot better than the 300-page contract that the regular union has with the L.A. school district. In the process, Barr hopes to change the way both institutions do business.

Last year was a transitional one for Locke, and it didn’t go very well. Green Dot hadn’t yet taken over, but the district had already more or less moved out. The result was a disastrous year for the students, culminating in a schoolwide brawl in May that involved as many as 600 students and brought dozens of police officers to the campus, some in riot gear.

Barr showed me around Locke yesterday morning. I never saw the pre-Green Dot Locke, so I didn’t have anything to compare it with, but things looked calm and orderly, students wearing their new polo-shirt uniform tucked into their new regulation khakis. There were no fisticuffs.

The Locke project is in many ways a risky undertaking. It’s hard to turn around miseducated ninth graders. And Locke is unlike other charters, in that families don’t have to fill out a special application to attend. If they live in the neighborhood, Locke is their high school. As the L.A. Times pointed out recently,

it’s one thing to make progress with students who voluntarily sign up for a rigorous academic environment and whose parents actively support the endeavor. Green Dot’s experience with Locke’s many doubt-filled teens will provide a more realistic measure of what charter schools can do for poor and minority students who typically have lower test scores and higher dropout rates. And if it succeeds, Green Dot will have created a blueprint for public schools.

Of course, what makes the project somewhat less risky is that after last year, the school has nowhere to go but up.

To all San Franciscans: I’ll be reading and discussing Whatever It Takes tonight (Tuesday) at 7 p.m. at the Books Inc. in Opera Plaza , an event co-sponsored by 826 Valencia , the drop-in tutoring center for kids who want help with their writing. And tomorrow (Wednesday), I’ll be giving a talk at lunch at the University of California-Berkeley journalism school, an event hosted by Berkeley professors Michael Pollan and David Kirp . If you’re in the neighborhood, please drop by.