Finally, Some Real Changes in Public Education

Finally we are talking in new ways about education, and finally there is movement in this long-stagnant quagmire.
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Public education is royally screwed up in Los Angeles, as in urban centers the country over, and in L.A. it's heartening to watch a groundswell of outrage shape itself into action. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's gallant play for control of the embattled school district was struck down by the courts, but successes are brewing; just last week, the Los Angeles Board of Education voted -- after a contentious debate -- to hand over one of the city's most underperforming high schools to Green Dot Public Schools, a nonprofit charter organization with an excellent track record.* Whether Angelinos agree or disagree with specific actions taken, finally we are talking in new ways about education, and finally there is movement in this long-stagnant quagmire. We can only hope that such movement is contagious on the national stage.

Relating to this issue on a personal level, it seems telling that of all the journalistic stories I've written over the years, the one that continues to garner the most feedback is a quick essay I published in the Los Angeles Times when I was a freshman in college. The story is an overview of my experience at Berkeley High School, a huge, beautifully diverse public high school in Berkeley, Calif. I began ninth grade determined to take every AP class and expand my resume in every possible way in pursuit of the Ivy League, but it soon became apparent that I was sacrificing truer passions such as writing and music for empty daydreams of future prestige. So I opted to drop the success ethic rigmarole and instead to try and view high school as an innately worthwhile experience rather than as rote preparation for college or the workforce beyond. The kicker to this story, which in a backwards way grabs the attention of parents busy corralling their kindergarteners into SAT prep courses, is that I ended up getting into schools like Stanford and UC Berkeley anyway (and then decided on Occidental, a small liberal arts college in L.A.).

Doesn't sound like a revolutionary suggestion, huh? That kids might actually enjoy their education rather than viewing it as preparation for some future idyll that always gets postponed? In a better world, my story would not have been newsworthy, and the fact that I still hear about it from college counselors, teachers, parents and students is a testament to how awfully screwed up our educational system has become -- and how deeply we all yearn for something better.

I was lucky at Berkeley High to encounter teachers who strove with great heart to bring about meaningful change. My English teacher and first journalistic mentor, Rick Ayers, invited me to join his "small school" within BHS, an innovative program which eliminates tracking and brings together kids from the entire racial, socioeconomic and academic spectrum into single classrooms for three periods a day. I learned more from these classmates, from the ocean of their life experience, than I did in any tracked, ostensibly "high level" classes. At first, our classroom was self-segregated on racial and cultural lines along with the rest of the school, and it would have remained that way were it not for Rick's remarkable ability to inject empathy into the room. Mainly, his technique was simply to listen -- when a student was fumbling for words, or angry, or scared, Rick listened -- and we listened alongside, and in the process began to see past stereotypes, to appreciate each other as people.

My high school years were engaging and fulfilling, thanks to folks like Rick, but as is typical with urban public schools, many kids at Berkeley High either fell through the cracks and dropped out, for lack of adequate support, or lived in the future tense, for too much of the wrong kind of support. Thus, both low achievers and high achievers are existentially absent from the educational process, and most importantly are absent from each other. Criticism of public schools typically hinges on the persistent inability to inspire low achievers, but the problem of "chronic achievement syndrome" among elite students is interrelated as it engenders in them an inability to participate fully in a diverse community as engaged citizens among peers. The ideal of a liberal education as an experience that broadens and deepens the person as well as the mind, that prepares students for true citizenship in the Greek sense, falls by the wayside.

Working as a journalist in Los Angeles these last few years, getting to know kids who went through the Los Angeles Unified School District, memories of Berkeley High have come wafting back: Here again is a vastly diverse student population -- a great asset! -- paired with some extremely talented teachers whose efforts to reform the system are hobbled by a bureaucracy vigorously hostile to innovation. On rare occasions, renegade teachers are able to overcome resistance and see their innovative ideas and programs come to fruition, but in the end relatively few students have access to these resources, and the old model -- assembly line learning, overcrowded classrooms, social division via tracking, emphasis on testing rather than learning -- trucks forward. There is really no villain here, no organized administrative blockade, just a behemoth organization calcified in its ways and lacking sufficient motivation to shake things up and begin anew.

If the system cannot be changed from within, then it seems that we must change it from without. In Los Angeles as in other cities whose bloated school districts are stuck in a rut, education entrepreneurs are hard at work breathing life into alternative visions. Instead of expending all their creative energy fighting to implement changes in current schools, many of these entrepreneurs choose to create their own public charter schools. The upshot here is twofold: First and foremost, students are given the choice to enroll in public schools that are methodologically and organizationally dynamic and creative, and secondly, as a critical mass of charter schools enters the equation, school districts are forced by competition on the open market to update and improve their dysfunctional models.

The multilayered efficacy of this approach is well illustrated by the success of Green Dot Public Schools, which operates charter schools in some of L.A.'s poorest neighborhoods. Founded in 1999 by colorful education entrepreneur Steve Barr, Green Dot has regularly bested LAUSD statistics -- in 2006, for instance, Green Dot graduated roughly 80 percent of its students, whereas the LAUSD graduation rate hovered under 50 percent. Numbers can be misleading, of course, but the principles undergirding the Green Dot philosophy make so much sense that it's easy to wonder why the school district hasn't been employing this model all along -- which, I guess, is sort of the point. Green Dot's commonsensical tenets are, in sum: "Small, safe, personalized schools," "high expectations," "local control," "parent participation," "get every dollar into the classroom," and "keep schools open later."

As was the plan from the get-go, Green Dot and other charter organizations are putting intense pressure on the LAUSD, and the results have been rapid and tangible. As mentioned earlier, just last week the L.A. Board of Education voted to hand over to Green Dot control of Locke High School, one of the lowest performing schools in the district and the state. Green Dot plans on dividing Locke into multiple small schools to be run independently according to their central tenets, just as they did in 2006 when they took over Jefferson High School, traditionally the lowest performing school in the district. Even given the troubled history of Locke and Jefferson -- blighted by the manifold exigencies of poverty, not to mention low test scores -- Green Dot expects its replacement schools to eventually graduate over 80 percent of students and enroll three-quarters of graduates in four-year colleges. A lofty goal, to be sure, but this can-do optimism is welcome in a milieu long dominated by the reverse.

The point here is not that Green Dot or any other charter organization has all the answers, but that in L.A. as in Oakland, New York City and elsewhere, the pot is being stirred. A clear answer to the problems endemic to public education will not arrive overnight, nor will there ever be a one-size-fits-all solution; society is fluid, problems are fluid, and so our school system must also be agile and fluid. Innovators must be given room to implement new ideas, despite the growing pains that result. Perhaps one of these days, more public school kids will sit in their college dorm rooms reminiscing as I did in that essay for the L.A. Times -- "High school was one of the best experiences of my life," I wrote, "and I'll always remember it fondly." It's worth mentioning that even now, years later, this sentiment remains for me singularly and wholeheartedly true.

* Full disclosure: NewSchools Venture Fund, where I am a part time journalist-in-residence, provides support to charter school organizations including Green Dot.

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