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Witnessing Ed Reform in Action: Interview with Alexander Russo

TeachHUB Interview

Witnessing Ed Reform in Action: Interview with Alexander RussoA few years ago, LA's Locke High School was known as one of the toughest, failing schools in the nation. In attempts to make a positive change, the teachers voted to transform Locke High to a charter school.

Journalist Alexander Russo followed this turnover process and through his book, Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors: Fighting for the Souls of America’s Toughest Schools, he captures the hard work, dedication, and struggle of the teachers, students, community, and organizations involved.

Russo shares his behind the scenes experience at Locke High School's journey filled with hardship and success in this exclusive TeachHUB interview.

What has this insider experience taught you about what does and does NOT work for school reform?

To be effective, school reform requires at least three things that I can think of:

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1. a compelling leader to get things moving at the start,

2. a steady, quarterback to keep everyone together despite all the adversity that will inevitably occur along the way, and

3. a core of hard-working, group-oriented educators who can stay banded together over the long haul. 


In Stray Dogs, hard-charging school reformer Steve Barr is the catalyst, rookie principal Ronnie Coleman is the steady hand, and the group of teachers she hires – not a real jerk among the 120 of them – adapt like crazy to make the unlikely turnaround work.
What was the biggest challenge in documenting this story?
For me, it was really hard being there as an observer.  I always wanted to give my two cents or help out when things got hectic, even though that’s not what a journalist is supposed to do (and I might well have suggested or done the wrong thing). 


For the reformers and educators I was following, it was understandably hard to get used to having a big guy with a tape recorder and notepad pestering them with questions during their breaks or while they walked down the hall to get something copied.  Later on as I was writing things up, it was hard putting things in the book that I knew would be uncomfortable or even mortifying to the people who’d let me tag along with them, and also hard dealing with disagreements over what happened or who deserved blame or praise.
You’ve seen the “teacher-trigger” law put into action. Do you personally support the “teacher-trigger” and “parent-trigger” laws for turning around schools?
Teacher and parent triggers aren’t perfect, but they make it clear that principals, central office administrators, can’t ignore the people they’re serving.  There are other ways to accomplish the same things, though none of them are perfect.


In Chicago, parent-teacher councils can change principals every four years.  I’m not clear on the specific mechanism but we’ve got to find ways to give teachers and parents more say in how their schools are run, and when changes need to be made.
In school reform, there is always rampant talk about “bad teachers” who don’t care. In Locke High School, the principal and teachers were the ones who voted to turn the school over to Green Dot. That principal and more than half of those teachers lost their jobs. How did this affect the transition process? Do you think it will hamper future efforts for teachers and administrators to reform their schools?
That’s one of the main failures of the Locke turnaround: the inability of Green Dot to recruit and retain the successful veteran teachers who voted for the turnover and wanted to stay. 
There was a lot of unnecessary collateral damage, and broken promises right from the start.


Another problem was Green Dot’s failure to recruit veteran teachers from its network to come join the Locke turnaround. To Green Dot’s credit, it was the union that refused to give its members a leave of absence to teach at Locke – Green Dot said it would have been happy to keep more of them.
Locke High School, both before and after the transition, is certainly filled with colorful characters for your book.  How did you stay objective as a writer while developing relationships with these people?
As much as I wanted to, I generally didn’t socialize with people from Green Dot or Locke – I didn’t go to their parties or out drinking with them, or visit their homes (with the exception of Barr, whose house I visited once).  I always kept a pen and paper in my hand or on the table – as a reminder to me as much as to them that while we were sharing a pretty amazing, intense experience together that I was doing a job, too. 


That being said, we spent a lot of time together and obviously things got personal here and there.  You can’t ask people to spill their guts without them asking you some of the same questions in return, and I felt obliged to be candid in my responses.
Green Dot stands out among charter programs by having their own union for teachers. What difference is there for teachers under the Green Dot union vs. district unions?
The Green Dot contract protects teachers from unreasonable termination and from being overworked, but it doesn’t provide tenure or set minutes or hours for classroom time. I think of it as a safety net for teachers and a fail-safe for Green Dot so that it doesn’t overwork or treat teachers unfairly. 


Green Dot claims that its teacher turnover is less than other charter networks, though it’s hard work and long hours and people do move a lot within different Green Dot schools.
One of the school leaders in the “New Locke” was an alumnus with strong ties in the community. Did you witness this kind of local support and involvement affecting the school culture and potential success?
I’ve never seen or read of a turnaround in which the community was as supportive of the changeover as there was at Locke.  It was key to the success of the effort that the community, alumni, and traditions of Locke be preserved and supported – and that the kids currently attending the school had social opportunities (sports, field trips, dances) as well as academic ones.  It didn’t hurt that Green Dot helped buy drill team uniforms and helped fund the athletic department, either.  There was a lot of caution, a lot of “we’ll see.” But in the end,
poor communities and long-ignored schools like Locke can’t really afford to be cynical or standoffish.  They have to be hopeful and vigilant.
How did the students respond to the changes made by Green Dot during the transition?
They were all over the place about what they thought -- and their views changed over time.  Some liked the new Locke right away but came to have questions in later months. Some hated it at first but then came to appreciate what was being done.  Generally, they liked that they now had teachers who cared, and chafed at the uniforms and lack of free time during the day.
Why do you think charter schools like Green Dot’s Locke High School are so often filled with inexperienced teachers and administrators? What is the effect on the school and students’ success?
It was a shame that there weren’t more veteran teachers at the new Locke – that the faculty actually lost expertise between the old and the new Lockes – and it was hard to watch the rookies working so hard and still making rookie mistakes. You can have high SAT scores and a great college GPA and still struggle with rambunctious kids and skepticism. 


On the other hand, the young new teachers were more enthusiastic and less skeptical than they would have been if there had been more veterans around.  Some days, enthusiasm and effort were all that they had.
It seems that you put as much of your time and yourself into Locke High School as the real-life characters in your book. How has this experience affected you?
That’s very kind of you to say.  While I was there at the school reporting on the story, I worried a lot for the kids and the teachers (I also ate a lot of junk food and got really fat).  While I was writing the book I was scared of getting facts wrong, of messing things up for the people at the school or at Green Dot, and of saying things (about school reform, the media, ghetto kids) that would seem harsh or cynical or impolite.  But, I was determined to tell the true story of what it was like to try and turn around a school, and to put as much into the book as the teachers and reformers were putting into the school.

Do you think charter school and organizations such as Green Dot is the best option for edreform? Share with us!


Purchase Alexander's Book: Stray Dogs, Saints, And Saviors: Fighting for the Soul of America's Toughest High School

Check out Alexander's Blog: This Week in Education and view his Facebook page.

Photos Courtesy of Green Dot

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