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Dropout Factories

Can we sustain the public's attention for long enough to rehabilitate our country's worst schools?

Can we sustain the public’s attention for long enough to rehabilitate our country’s worst schools?

The country’s most crippled public high schools, dubbed “dropout factories” because less than 60 percent of their students see graduation day, are having their moment in the spotlight. The Obama administration has committed to putting nearly $1 billion toward turning around 2,000 such schools.

Despite the grim state of the public school system, there is reform on the horizon. Earlier this fall, Waiting for Superman, a new documentary by Davis Guggenheim (who directed An Inconvenient Truth), had its wide release. The film paints a devastating picture of America’s public school system and calls for widespread change. Around the same time, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on Oprah that he was pledging $100 million dollars to help remake Newark’s failed public school system. Lastly, School Pride, a new show on NBC, will apply the successful reality makeover model to failing public schools—in essence, hoping to keep the momentum generated from Waiting for Superman continuing well into the new year.

Whether in the film or outside of it, what the public has gravitated towards are beacons of hope—proof that schools can be made right again. Locke High School in the Watts area of Los Angeles is one of those, having become something of a turnaround poster child. Once infamous for violence and dropouts, and called a dumping ground for bad teachers, the school was taken over in 2008 by Green Dot, a charter management organization, and it’s hasn’t looked back since.

When asked what exactly has changed at Locke since, Marco Petruzzi, chief executive of Green Dot Public Schools says: “Everything, not a single thing is the same.” He goes on to cite some of the most critical achievements: The school has been broken down into smaller campuses that give students more personal attention, and the new staff's overriding ethos is that these kids can go to college.

“We’ve also created a safe place where students can leave their tough attitudes behind, and I’m hearing that the community is really starting to get behind it.” The latest reports show that the school’s test scores are up and the dropout rates down.

But detractors point to the high cost, which has been estimated at $15 million over four years. Under rules set by Congress, districts can only apply for $6 million for each failing school to be used over a three-year period. The Locke turnaround has relied considerably on private funding, and many, including Senator Al Franken, have called into question whether it’s an model that can be easily replicated by other failing schools.

However, Petruzzi says the numbers are being misunderstood: “The average California public student only gets $7,800 a year in government funding. But the national average is actually around $10,800 and in New York it’s closer to $18,000—when you spread that $15 million over four years and our total number of students, we’re only raising the annual student cost to $12,050.” According the Petruzzi, California is one of the least-funded states with one of the highest costs of living. “This is actually one of the cheapest turnarounds in the nation. So, yes, it’s absolutely doable.”

Justin Cohen, a turnaround strategist from the non-profit MassInsight, also thinks it’s a replicable model if states target the funds correctly. “The price tag at Locke may be high, but there’s now real federal money on the table to get the work done,” Cohen says, adding that “folks should instead be scrutinizing the way states use these grants.”

School Pride may show communities some ways to take matters into their own hands. “Our projects are funded by in-kind donations of local labor, raw materials and technology. Both local and national companies gave money to help fund the projects. And local volunteers executed the makeovers—this can be done anywhere,” says Jacob Soboroff, one of show’s hosts.

Some wonder whether awareness will ultimately translate into increased public engagement. While Petruzzi says Green Dot hasn’t seen any million-dollar checks rolling just yet, Newark certainly has. But smaller donations would be just as welcome: “What we’d love most actually, is to see LA’s middle class get behind this and realize that it’s the whole city’s issue.”

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