How to Change Public Education
How to Turn Our Schools Around: The Green Way
Locke Los Angeles, 50% of the population resides in poverty and schools rank among the worst in California. Students admit they were learning next to nothing, their teacher too busy reading magazines to teach; deterred by low-test scores and high rates of violence the staff of Locke had all but given up.
Dr. Frank Wells came to Locke High School fully aware of its gang-infested hallways, 4% proficiency rates, and lack of student involvement; but he came with a plan. Slowly, he wanted to switch the run-down and ill-efficient school into something else entirely: a Green Dot Public school. His first step as Principle was requiring all teachers to show him their lesson plans for the week. To his surprise, he was met with anger and disdain; teachers were no longer happy with his presence at their school. Dr. Wells persisted, adamant that teachers be as reliable and prepared as they expect their students to be.
The Green Revolution
In 2000, Steve Barr started up his next social venture with one 9th grade classroom he called, a Green Dot Public charter school. His mission was to prove that the failure of the Los Angeles school district was not based upon money but instead faulty management and structure. With some public and some private grants Barr has expanded on this idea, wining the rights to take over many other failing LA campuses. Time and time again his results are nothing short of amazing.
What Green Dot Does Different
The regular classroom is a standard power structure: the teacher is in charge above all else, the students are to behave or be sanctioned however the teacher sees fit. In other words, the kids are at the mercy of their handler; which is fine when the teacher is kind, caring, compassionate, and gifted at teaching children. But this isn’t the case with many teachers, these power structures are often over-exaggerated and justified as so, leaving the kids victims in a dominating classroom. Back in my middle school days, I had a teacher like this myself. I remember her bright red fingernails, how they’d snap on the edge of someone’s desk before she dumped the contents onto the floor. I was frozen in fear, terrified into submission. I’d panic at night before bed, is my desk clean enough? Is she going to dump my desk out tomorrow? These phobias would remain unknown had I gone to a Green Dot school where unlike traditional schools; teachers don’t have all the power.
Unsurprisingly, many teachers don’t take kindly to this; not caring for a curriculum controlled by the classroom and communities. Despite this common disfavor, others are raving, and for good reason. Green schools are dedicated to doing a few key things differently than other schools.
- Smaller campuses mean safer campuses. Many of Los Angeles schools are ridden with gangs; soon as the campus becomes smaller and more tightly knit, “the need for it, just goes away,” one student commented, shrugging her shoulders with a smile. When everyone knows each other it’s less about cliques and more about community. Also, these smaller class sizes keep kids from getting ignored. Working in an underfunded traditional school, I’ve seen firsthand how the kids get so behind simply because there are not enough teachers to go around.
- Despite the adversity most of Green Dot students face, staff maintains high expectations. The school requires college prep courses for the UC system. At Locke High School, before Dr. Wells, most teachers’ expectations had dropped so low learning had stopped all together. When teachers don't expect much out of kids, they don't expect anything from themselves; a devastating cycle.
- The importance of parent involvement with education is crucial! Yet, in traditional schools poor families, often minorities, don’t feel connected to the school or teacher, they have nothing in common. They are also sometimes ashamed of their own limited education. Green Dot forces parents to work a minimum of 35 hours a year, ensuring their participation. By forcing parents to get into the classroom, these fears are trumped and much is gained for the child, parents, and community.
- Green Dot insists that they keep control of funds at the local level, this is unlike traditional public schools where funding is decided by far off entities. Arguably, keeping big time decisions at the personal level insures that the best decisions are made, not based off of general rules but off of personal discretion. This control also allows Green Dot to keep the majority of funds in the classrooms where they belong.
- Parents in poverty don’t have the luxury of taking time off work to drop by school and they don’t have the funds to pay a nanny to do so. When the bell rings at 2:15 a lot of students have no one waiting for them. This is not by choice, parents wish they didn’t have to do this but life is tough, in order to feed their family they must take these risks. Since Green Dot works so closely with the community it addresses this issue by keeping campuses open later, until at least 5 pm.
These seemingly simple changes have made Green Dot the leading turnaround operator in the nation! A ‘turnaround,’ is exactly what Green Dot did for Locke High School when it broke the student body up into eight different charter schools. The success immediately witnessed prompted the opening of 14 total high schools and 4 middle schools.
All of Green Dot’s statistics are favorable, especially in comparison to the 200 public schools nearby still open through the Los Angeles Unified School District. The same funding is given to both institutions but Green Dot students routinely score 150-200 points higher on standardized tests.
Just last year, in June of 2011, the last class who remembers the old Locke High graduated. The students were emotional as well as the counselors who had guided them through the amazing process of change. The students attribute their success to Green Dot, having witnessed an expansion in opportunities they never thought possible.
So should we expect for a ‘greener’ educational future? The School Board of Los Angels has said themselves they are tired of what they see; they are ready for anything new.