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Posted at 08:51 PM ET, 04/14/2011

Gripping saga in a bad school

I am probably the nation’s most devoted reader of real-life high school reform drama, an overlooked literary genre. If there were a Pulitzer Prize in this category, Alexander Russo’s new book on the remaking of Locke High in Los Angeles would win. It is a must-read, nerve-jangling thrill ride, at least for those of us who love tales of teachers and students.

Readers obsessed with fixing our failing urban schools will learn much from the personal clashes and political twists involved in the effort to save what some people called America’s worst school. I remember the many news stories about Locke, and enjoyed discovering the real story was different, and more interesting.

Locke was not really our toughest high school. Russo finds some nice students and kind teachers. But its inner-city blend of occasional mayhem and very low test scores made it famous when its teachers revolted and helped turn it over to a charter school organization that tried to fix it by breaking it into smaller, more manageable pieces.

I forgive Russo, one of our most experienced and knowledgeable education bloggers, for his overdone title: “Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors: Fighting for the Soul of America’s Toughest High School.” The clarity of his prose makes the book a pleasure to read. It moves fast. I regretted having to put it down when my wife, recently retired, annoyed me with frivolous requests to sign our tax forms or wash the car.

I am keeping the book close to my desk because it explains the rise of Steve Barr and his legendary charter school organization Green Dot, which will be important for years to come. The book makes sense of the wayward course of school politics in our second largest city---the one I am moving to this summer.

Like a great novelist, Russo shows, not tells. The book’s high point is its profile of a seemingly innocuous drama and art teacher named Monica Mayall, the teacher union representative at Locke after Green Dot took over. Green Dot is different from other charter school organizations because it welcomes teacher unions. Some in the organization regretted that view when Mayall, who took seriously every clause in her contract, began to note her bosses’ failings. “From Green Dot’s perspective,” Russo wrote, “she was a potential ‘culture killer,’ a negative, disruptive voice that hindered the teamwork and flexibility needed to make the turnaround work.”

But Mayall knew better. In one class, her contract said she only had to take in the 33 students on her roster. The school office sent more than that. She sweetly told several bewildered teens, “Sorry, you’re number 34, so I can’t let you in.”

“For weeks,”Russo wrote, “Mayall bugged everyone who would listen to her about the class sizes being too big. She talked about the issue at faculty meetings. . . . She talked to Green Dot people when they came on campus. Then, in mid-October, Mayall and the union filed a grievance against Green Dot over the class-size issue---the first such grievance filed in the organization’s history. There were thirty-six classes with over thirty-three students.”

No movie will be made from Russo’s book. It lacks the clichéd triumph over adversity that Hollywood demands. Instead we get a story of slow and uneven progress. At the end of the book, Russo even wonders if trying to turn around any school in this blunt-force way makes sense.

I plan to read the book again when I get to California. Anyone interested in fixing bad schools anywhere in the country should do the same. We will never have a better guide to how to do this right, and wrong.

By  |  08:51 PM ET, 04/14/2011

 
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