On Thursday, Sam Dillon of the New York Times wrote about Green Dot’s transformation of Locke High School and the high cost in turning it around. I am particularly interested in Locke, having run a leadership program for students there while I was an undergrad at USC. When I visited the school in 2006, it was not uncommon to see graffiti in the building. I remember my first experience there waiting for the teacher to come to the front to tell the security guard that it was OK for me to come in. Parking was also interesting. The teacher parking lot was filled with cars, not just in spots, but double-parked behind other cars and some just stopped on the side. Although that doesn’t sound like a major issue, it was indicative of the climate of the school.
When it comes to organization, I can’t say that it seemed much different than the other LAUSD schools I had visited. I had received a grant from Ralph Lauren and MTVU to run a leadership and technology program for high school freshmen and sophomores. The idea was that I’d teach them skills to help them set up their own organizations at the school. For a couple of months, I went around to schools trying to get appointments with principals to ask if I could run the program for them. They didn’t have to do anything other than sign off on it. I had the transportation, I had the program. I had ways to recruit students. Everything. After almost three months of getting nowhere, I finally talked to woman who recruited me to Teach For America and she gave me the name of one of the teachers at Locke. I called her that night and she told me to come drop off the applications for students the next day. The program was off and running, but it certainly had nothing to do with getting through the bureaucracy of the higher-ups. If you’re interested in reading about the exploits of the TFA teachers at Locke, there’s a book.
Anyway, that was all a very long tangent to explain how Locke was just your average crime-ridden poorly-organized behemoth of a school. In 2008, Green Dot Public Schools took over aiming to transform the school. One of the most important changes that people point to is the fact that Locke was split into seven different smaller schools, creating a close-knit environment. While it’s a little misleading to say that this is a complete departure from the past – there were already separate teams within the school that essentially created separate schools – the organization is the obvious difference. The school looks nicer, the staff is stronger, and most importantly, it seems as though the students believe in the school and in themselves. It’s clear that it’s basically a different school. This is no surprise, considering Green Dot’s track record.
However, Dillon points to one problem with being able to replicate what Green Dot has done: the cost.
By some estimates, Green Dot had to raise $15 million in private funds to transition the school, two-and-a-half times the $6 million per school Congress is allowing districts to apply for. These numbers are a bit misleading for a few reasons, though. The $6 million is in addition to the normal operating costs that the school is already receiving. The school also gets per pupil funding. How much? The budget is for close to $30 million per year with the state paying for $25 million of that. While that may sound like a lot, with 3,200 students, that amounts to less than $10,000 per student. In comparison, it was just reported that the state of New York spends over $17,000 per pupil. The national average is higher than California (which seems odd, considering how much higher cost of living is in California). Is it any surprise that the school spent just under average for pupil spending? The problem seems to be California’s budget issues more than anything else. Aside from California’s already low spending on students, Alexander Russo says that he has heard that, charters get less to spend than traditional public schools, which accounts for as much as $4 million by itself. One would expect that a large school with lots of problems in an expensive area would cost above average to turn around, not below. If anything, Green Dot should be commended, rather than questioned for how much they raised to make big strides in such a problem school.