The Alain LeRoy Locke High School opened in 1967 to provide a safe and secure place for learning. It was supposed to be an antidote to the tensions that led to the 1965 riots in the surrounding Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles. Four decades later, however, violence and chaos were the norm at Locke, and the school had become emblematic of systemic failure. Of the 1,000 students who entered as freshmen in 2003, just 250 graduated in 2007, and about 50 ended up enrolling in college. (A much smaller number actually earned a college degree.) At best, that’s a 5 percent success rate. Such dismal results landed Locke in the bottom 1 percent of all California high schools. 

Our nonprofit charter-school organization, Green Dot Public Schools, took over Locke’s operation from the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2008, with the hopes of turning it around, and our first full cohort of Locke ninth graders graduated in 2012. Compared to students with similar performance and socio-demographics attending peer schools across South Los Angeles, our students were 1.5 times more likely to graduate and 3.7 times more likely to have completed successfully rigorous coursework upon graduation that prepared them for college (reported in a 2012 study by the UCLA National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing).

Most recently, 53 percent of the 2010 entering ninth grade class (the graduating class of 2014) enrolled in college—a 10-fold increase from just six years before. These results represent important progress toward Green Dot’s ultimate goal with all its schools: that every student graduate from high school prepared for college, leadership, and life.

As a growing number of school districts and charter-school operators—in Los Angeles, Memphis, Detroit, and elsewhere—embark on school turnaround efforts, our story offers a hopeful yet cautionary tale. On one hand it illustrates the enormous challenges schools face in meeting the needs of all students, supporting teachers and school leaders, and achieving financial sustainability. On the other, it offers hard-earned solutions. Turning around Locke tested our commitment, our endurance, and every aspect of our model. We hope that other organizations engaged in turnaround efforts—especially those used to starting charter schools (the typical model)—can benefit from our experience. 

From Start-ups to Turnarounds  

By 2007 Green Dot had built eight charter high schools in Los Angeles serving low-income students of color. Fifty-seven percent of our students were graduating within four years having successfully completed college-prep course work (as defined by the University of California and California State systems), compared to 11 percent in comparable district schools.

But we were serving only 3,000 students in a district of 700,000, and we couldn’t ignore data showing that 50 percent of the state’s dropouts came from roughly 100 chronically underperforming California high schools.  If we could play a role in transforming these schools, the number of students who would graduate college- and career-ready would dramatically increase. We embarked on a mission at Locke with the aim of testing our charter model in new terrain; our hope was to create a turnaround model that we could replicate and others could adopt.

The roots of our success in building independent charter schools lie in an academic model that emphasizes effective instructional strategies, rigorous curricula, and a college-focused culture. We also believe that our comprehensive performance management approach, which is built around professional support and development, individual coaching, collaboration, and meaningful evaluation, is a critical factor. But from the outset, we knew we couldn’t impose our model immediately and fully at Locke. 

In fact, we purposefully set out up front to articulate the issues that would make our work at Locke different from a typical start-up experience—we came up with 150 in our first meeting. We knew, for example, that with four grades and 2,200 students, Locke was 15 times the typical size of an independent charter start-up, which usually grows grade by grade. Locke also serves all students in its attendance area; in our start-up charters, students choose to enter a lottery to gain admission. Additionally, Locke enrolls new students throughout the year as they move into the area, rather than setting an enrollment deadline.

Start-up charters and turnaround schools couldn’t be more different, and nearly a decade of experience with independent charter schools and months of advanced planning couldn’t fully prepare us for the road ahead. We struggled to deal with three unforeseen challenges: larger-than-expected differences between Locke’s student body and other charter schools, difficulty hiring and retaining teachers and administrators ready for the task at hand, and major expenses that drove the budget deep into the red. In each instance, we made adjustments to reflect this new reality.

First, students arrived with a wider and more complex set of academic and social challenges than those at our other charter schools.

From day one, teachers expressed concern that Locke’s students came with academic, social, and emotional needs unlike anything Green Dot had experienced in its start-up charters. Our senior leadership team insisted on developing a culture of high expectations and argued that we had a decade of experience serving similar kids from poor neighborhoods. For example, incoming ninth graders across all Green Dot high schools are in the fifth percentile of performance (bottom 5 percent) in English/language arts and the seventh percentile (bottom 7 percent in math)—compared with students that are entering at the 28th percentile and 32nd percentile at the average Los Angeles high school.

But we soon agreed that the teachers were right; the magnitude and concentration of high-need students at Locke contributed to an incredibly challenging and more-unpredictable school environment. A closer look showed that Locke’s incoming ninth graders ranked in the bottom 1 percent in both English/language arts and math. Also, 300-400 Locke students required a full range of special education supports for a variety of disabilities, dozens returned after release from the juvenile justice system throughout the year, and the school had many more pregnant and parenting teens than a typical Green Dot charter high school.

Student transiency also played havoc with teaching and scheduling—a problem that continues year to year. For example, in the 2013–2014 school year, 500 new students showed up after the first day of school, at an average of 15 students per week throughout the year.

Under such conditions, diagnosing and providing services for students proved far more time-consuming, complex, and costly than anything we had previously experienced. We remained focused on our goal of advancing many students at least 1.5-2 grade levels in every subject each year to make up for the average 3-5 years they had fallen behind prior to entering high school, but we had to acknowledge that meeting our goal was going to be much harder than we originally thought.

Second, it proved more difficult than anticipated to find and retain turnaround-ready teachers and leaders.

Initially, we counted on transferring experienced teachers and administrators from our independent charter schools to Locke as an effective way to transplant the organization’s culture and instructional model. But relying on that talent pipeline proved insufficient. Because of the concentration and large volume of issues affecting students at Locke, teachers and administrators strained to keep up. Many teachers who came to Locke from other Green Dot charters asked to be transferred back after only a couple years, often citing the all-encompassing nature of turnaround work. We soon learned that in this even-more-demanding environment, we it needed to support the staff differently; we doubled the amount of coaching for teachers and administrators we offered to our charter start-ups. 

Teacher turnover remains higher at Locke than at our start-up charters, but we’ve learned that recruiting new teachers won’t solve the problem, and we aim to limit the number of first-year teachers beginning their careers in a school turnaround.

Third, the budget challenges blindsided us, despite careful planning.

Green Dot inherited Locke’s buildings, furnishings, and equipment from the district, eliminating one of the biggest start-up expenses for charter schools. So it seemed reasonable to expect a balanced budget fairly quickly. Seven years later, though, Locke’s budget remains in the red, dragged down by expenses unfamiliar to most charter operations.

For example, enrollment is guesswork—particularly in the early years—and guessing wrong is costly. Due to changing demographics in the Watts community after the economic downturn of 2008, Locke (and all other surrounding schools) has experienced an unexpected decline in enrollment over the past seven years. Families with children are moving out of the area due to lack of employment opportunities. But Locke can’t unilaterally expand its attendance area, and so student numbers drop and result in significant revenue swings. The additional—and necessary—teacher supports are also costly. Locke needs lower student-teacher ratios—another extra expense. Special education programs—and sorting out special-education placement issues—are more than we expected. Student safety, an urgent issue given the presence of neighborhood gangs, required that we spend three to four times more per student on security than at our other charter schools, adding upwards of $400,000 a year to the budget. 

And we didn’t properly scope the cost of sports. In the interest of supporting school spirit and culture, Green Dot maintained Locke’s full suite of athletic programs, although we had no experience in that area. We soon found out that a program of that size also costs more than $400,000 a year. All told, we spend about $1,000 more per student at Locke than we do at our other charter schools.

Developing a Turnaround Playbook 

The good news is that we have learned and adapted, and gotten better at turnaround work, thanks in part to data analysis. We have developed a set of “transformation proof points,” and we look regularly at a set of metrics in three areas: student achievement, school culture and climate, and fidelity to the Green Dot program model. We look at these figures side-by-side with those from our start-up charters.

Data also figures prominently in customizing the curriculum to meet individual student needs. By charting student growth relative to expected performance, we get a clearer picture of how students are progressing—even if they continue to perform below proficient on high-stakes state tests. We also use growth-potential data to shape academic interventions. This data has been a powerful source of motivation for Locke teachers, because they can see how their work positively impacts individual student learning over time.

Data on student discipline showed that Locke faced more issues than a typical charter and, as a result, administrators struggled to find time to provide effective instructional leadership. To address this problem, we hired a dean to focus exclusively on discipline issues and to add programs that address the most-challenged students, allowing teachers and principals to concentrate on instruction. We also invest heavily in mental health and individualized wraparound services for students.

To improve the recruitment and retention of skilled teachers and school leaders, we doubled down on development and support. Like all Green Dot teachers, turnaround teachers attend a summer retreat focused on school culture, review data from the previous year, and develop strategic approaches to improve teaching practices and develop curriculum. But for Locke, we make an extra investment in training to support students with the most-demanding academic and social needs. Teachers have access to more time from instructional coaches, and the counseling staff is larger than usual. Principals and assistant principals participate in an array of professional development opportunities, including monthly best-practice meetings and regular visits to charter schools within the Green Dot network to review instructional practices and share strategies.

Finally, we invested in hiring more school psychologists and clinical supervisors to keep caseloads manageable, and more aides to assist classroom teachers. When combined with the extra costs for special education and security, Green Dot must raise money to close the gap between the financial support it gets from the state and actual per-student costs. Despite these extra investments, hiring, developing, and retaining great teachers and administrators remains our biggest strategic challenge; there is no easy fix.

Building a Sustainable Future for Turnaround Work

Based on our experiences, we think several operating conditions must be in place for a turnaround to have a chance of success. It’s essential to gain autonomy in hiring, scheduling, and site-level budgeting, and to have a school district that understands and supports the work of school turnaround (given its role as authorizer). It’s also important to have committed local funders willing to invest long-term in what it takes to turn around and sustain a school like Locke. This is critical given the need to supplement inadequate public per-pupil support. Even with the new California funding formula, Locke still needs to raise between $500 and $1,000 per student to cover costs.

Locke’s experience poses tough questions about the sustainability of stand-alone high school turnarounds. If every year, incoming ninth graders rank at the bottom 1 percent of performance of all students in California, there is little hope that turnaround work will ever be “done.” 

Green Dot has thus extended its turnaround work into the middle schools that feed students into Locke—including opening a charter middle school a couple of blocks away. Expanding into middle schools will give struggling students at least seven years of high-quality, college-prep instruction, and will ensure that some members of the incoming ninth-grade class are already champions for Green Dot’s culture and academic approach.

Together, the measures we have taken at Locke add up to a promising model for doing better, faster turnaround work while reinforcing the need to remain flexible and adaptable. 

Based on this progress, Green Dot embarked on two additional Los Angeles turnarounds in 2011: Jordan High School and Clay Middle School, both situated within two miles of Locke. At the time, Clay was the lowest-performing middle school in the state. Under Green Dot’s operation, Clay students have made greater gains on multiple metrics than any other federal School Improvement Grant recipient in Los Angeles. We managed to achieve more student progress at Clay and Jordan in three years than in seven years at Locke (as measured by California’s Academic Performance Index), evidence that we’re better able to implement some “tried and tested” programs from the start. 

In fall 2014, Green Dot assumed operation of Fairley High School in Memphis, Tennessee, after the state’s Achievement School District—tasked with improving the improving Tennessee’s lowest performing schools—invited us. First-year results look very promising, with double-digit proficiency improvements in math and English/language arts. Continued improvement will require patience and perseverance. 

So what does all this mean for school districts, charter operators, and funders interested in turnaround work? Eight years in, we are the first to admit that turnarounds are hard work. Many days, it can feel like fighting to stand still. But our commitment never wavers. For the Green Dot team, turning around the nation’s lowest-performing schools is the social justice issue of our time. Starting over with failing schools remains the right thing to do. 

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