Setting the Standard in Education

Posts Tagged ‘New York’

Locke Steps

In California, Federal, LA, Uncategorized on June 30, 2010 at 4:19 pm

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.

According to Dillon, Locke may have transformed like a butterfly, but the cost stings like a bee.

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.

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Gambling with Students’ Futures Should Be Illegal

In Uncategorized on June 20, 2010 at 6:19 pm

Last night, as a part of InformEdaction’s bi-monthly discussion series, I went to go see The Lottery at the Laemmle Music Hall. The movie is for the most-part what I expected it to be – a heart-wrenching account of an unfair system that keeps some families down alongside a glimmer of hope for a few. The premise of the movie is simple. Each year, thousands of families “apply” to get their student into one of the various charter schools in Harlem. At the time of filming, there were just over 20 charter schools there. The film tracked four families who applied for their children to attend Harlem Success Academy, the most popular lottery in New York.

The night that we attended just happened to include a Q&A by Madeleine Sackler, the director of the film. Ms. Sackler’s film offers a scathing review of union actions and local politics that seem to stand in the way of children’s success. Alongside the stories of the children trying to get into Harlem Success is the battle between the charter organization and advocates for PS129, a failing school that Harlem Success 2 wanted to expand into last year. The movie  claims that the major “shadow” actors behind the resistance movement are members of the teachers’ unions. At the hearing, there are even shots of opposition members wearing hats with the teachers’ union’s initials on them. In the Q&A, Sackler claimed that in making the movie, she had no agenda. She wasn’t trying to paint a certain picture of the unions or even of charter schools. In fact, she said she repeatedly tried to get union participation in the project – especially of AFT President, Randi Weingarten – and was told they were too busy for an entire year.

Overall, I think the film does a good job showing what charter schools can be, highlighting some of the amazing statistics that Harlem Success has been able to achieve. The school is proud of its high test scores, but seems to be even more glowing about its culture. Shots of the school show “Class of 2025” posters and university banners of all sorts. Interviews with teachers and principals there illustrate the drive they have to make sure their children succeed. If the film has a hero, it’s HSA’s CEO, Eva Moskowitz. She explains the high expectations the school has and is shown not only to be relentless, but passionate as well. At one point, Moskowitz is shown crying during her defense of HSA II’s plan to move into PS 129, because she believes that children in Harlem are not given the chances they deserve.

As much as I like the overall message of the film and the positive impact it might have on the general public, I have to say that even as someone who likes charters and is often critical of teachers’ unions getting in the way of education reform, I found the film particularly one-sided. Despite Ms. Sackler’s claims of having no prior intent – or maybe because of them – the film clearly portrays charters as fantastic institutions that are just being held back by those who don’t know or don’t care. It’s true, there are some amazing charter schools, but intentionally or not, the film makes it seem as though Harlem Success represents all charters. The school is popular because it stands out, not because it is similar to many others. It does what few other schools have been able to replicate. The movie also does not really share the legitimate concerns many have with the way that some charters are going about their business (or some may argue how they have to go about their business). It was apparent that one of the big worries of parents and local officials was that Harlem Success is not just for students in the areas that the zoned schools (read: normal public schools) where they were using space. The movie seems to gloss over the fact that not all of the children they followed were even from Harlem. The movie’s synopsis on IMDB says they are from “Harlem and the Bronx.”

The criticisms I have, however, are far outweighed by the positive effect a movie like this can have. If the general population were to see it, I think they would get the right message: there is a big problem with the way education has been going and it needs to change. Obviously, there are some who might not agree. Either way, it is clear that whether a child receives a quality education shouldn’t be a matter of chance.

For real this time…

In California, Federal, LA, Uncategorized on June 20, 2010 at 2:26 pm

OK, so my plan to write entries while in Israel did not quite pan out. It did not help that the adapter for my laptop decided to die. So now that I got that all squared away a few days ago, I’ve been in the process of trying to catch up on a month’s worth of articles. I thought perhaps I’d get through all of them and then start writing… I still have almost 600 articles left in my queue dating back to May 28. So instead of making you all wait another week or two, I’ll just start writing and hope that I can get back on track. Before I do, I thought I might mention that I’ll be relocating. The blog will stay here and I’ll still keep the national/LA stuff going, but since I’ll be heading to the NYC area, I’ll add in some NY/NJ local news once in a while, too. Since there are already lots of updates elsewhere on big to-dos in that part of the country, I don’t feel as obligated to make sure the general public is aware of them.

I am about to work on an entry about The Lottery, an excellent film I saw last night. It will be up later today.