Turning Around Failed Schools is Priceless, But it Doesn’t Have to Break the Bank

In anticipation of the release of our newest publication, the Lead Partner Playbook, we are featuring a guest series from school leaders and partner organizations who are pioneers in the field.  Our second installment comes from Marco Petruzzi, Chief Executive Officer of Green Dot Public Schools.

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Green Dot Public Schools is a high-performing charter school network in Los Angeles.   Green Dot currently operates eighteen schools in the highest-need areas of the city; fourteen high schools and four middle schools, almost half of which are Turnaround schools.  In 2007, Los Angeles Unified School District gave Green Dot control of failing Locke High School, which was converted into five smaller academies. 

By Marco Petruzzi

In an interview last week before a panel discussion on education reform, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan repeated a quote that sums up why we must turn around failing schools: “If you think the cost of education is expensive, try ignorance.”

While others sit and debate about  the costs of turning around failing schools, Green Dot Public Schools is transforming several chronically underperforming schools in Los Angeles, spending thousands less per pupil than the national average and even less than the local school district. We believe in a data-driven approach to support teachers and administrators in increasing the academic performance of their students.  We also believe in effective budgeting and fiscal discipline so as little money as possible gets spent outside the classroom and school.

Let’s take what is now known as the Locke Family of High Schools as an example. Green Dot Public Schools was granted operational control of Locke High School by the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2008. Our objectives at Locke were to dramatically transform the school’s culture, increase student retention, increase access to college-preparatory courses, increase academic results, provide a safe and secure learning environment, send more students to college, and provide social and emotional support for our student population. On top of that, the school campus itself had been greatly neglected and in need of repair and renovation. Our model was to redesign the school into five college-prep academies, serving the entire attendance area, and provide personalized interventions to all students in need (the majority of students, in this case).

It has been a difficult but rewarding four years at Locke, and while we will not claim victory until the majority of our entering 9th graders consistently graduate from 4 year universities,  Green Dot’s collaborative model with teachers and parents has greatly improved retention and test scores. A recent preliminary study by the University of California at Los Angeles on the performance of Locke High School’s five small college-prep schools operated by Green Dot over the first two years already shows strong results. UCLA will update their study later this year to include retention, graduation and proficiency gains for the past three academic years.  But the school is on track to send between 4 and 5 times more students to college for this year’s class than the year before we took over the school.

Perhaps more relevant to the national debate on the affordability of turning around chronically underperforming schools, is that this turnaround is happening during the toughest economic downturn in our state’s last 50 year history. California is facing a constant budget crisis, making us 48th overall in per student funding – about $2,600 below the national average. Funding has gone down 23% on an inflation adjusted basis since 2008 (coincidentally the year we took on the management of Locke) and to add insult to injury, as a public charter school, Green Dot receives about $500-1000 less per student than a traditional District would, if it operated Locke.

During these lean four years, we have spent approximately $8-9 million dollars on Locke High School, above and beyond the state and federal funding.  While that seems like a lot, Locke is a 3,300 student high school, so this investments amounts to less than $700/student/year, after which we will break even on the public dollar.  So our “investment” barely puts us at par with what the District would have spent at Locke and is still $2,600/student less than the national average.  What did our investment money go towards?  Mostly towards student interventions and better equipment and materials, but we also had to build an extra 55 classrooms, because as we reduced the dropout rate and students were staying through graduation, more classrooms were needed.

We will argue that it’s critical to be tightfisted with taxpayer money while still delivering the results parents and children deserve. But even after accounting for additional performance-based grants and donations Green Dot has secured, the cost per student at Locke is still thousands below the national average. That’s a promising return on investment and shows that turning around failing schools can be done without breaking the bank. If it can be done at Locke, a school that had a 75% dropout rate and in one of the lowest funded states in the nation, it can be done anywhere. We are happy to share our model with whoever wants to take on this difficult but inspiring work.

Marco Petruzzi is the Chief Executive Officer of Green Dot Public Schools. He originally joined Green Dot as President and Chief Operating Officer in January 2007 and was promoted to CEO in October 2008. During Marco’s tenure, Green Dot won Los Angeles School Board approval to rejuvenate Locke High School in Watts and began operating it in fall 2008, restructuring it into eight smaller, college-prep schools.