RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Locke High School is, by all accounts, among the worst here in Los Angeles. It's in Watts - that's one of the cities most treacherous, gang-infested neighborhoods. The school is overcrowded and it's on the brink of an academic meltdown.
Earlier this year, parents and half of the school's faculty revolted, forcing the school district to do something it has never done before: turn Locke High over to a private group of reformers. When that takeover happens next summer, some teachers know they won't be rehired. Others don't plan to stay.
Still, as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, some veteran teachers believe the school's best days are still ahead.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Reggie Andrews has taught at Locke High School on and off since 1968. But longevity is not the sole reason colleagues and kids respect him.
(Soundbite of song, "Let It Whip")
DAZZ BAND (Singers): (Singing) Wanna see you with it. Sho' could treat you right. Give me just a minute of your time tonight…
SANCHEZ: That's "Let It Whip." It won Andrews a share of a Grammy back when he was playing and composing for Earth, Wind and Fire with Motown Records. Sure, his biggest hit is on a Tampax commercial now.
Mr. REGGIE ANDREWS (Music Instructor, Locke High School): And, when my lawyer called me about that commercial, he says, do you have a problem with being on a tampon? And I said, is it paying?
(Soundbite of laughter)
SANCHEZ: Andrews runs the music department at Locke High. His classroom, the school's rundown choir room, is plastered with posters of former students who've done pretty well in the music business. Like them, Andrews grew up in Watts.
Mr. ANDREWS: I grew up in this enviroment. And I'm not going to sugarcoat it, but I have to be honest with you. I know these kids can do better, you know? And that's where I come from.
SANCHEZ: Andrews had seen it all - the precipitous decline in student's test scores and graduation rates, the revolving door of administrators and their gimmicky-reformed proposals, the empty promises from downtown bureaucrats and politicians, and worse, the toll all this has taken on teachers. Which is why most of them, along with frustrated parents, voted to have Green Dot, a charter school organization, take over.
Mr. ANDREWS: I think Green Dot is going to create opportunities that will allow our kids to commit to school again. So let's partner up with Green Dot and make this thing work.
SANCHEZ: In September, the Los Angeles Board of Education approved the takeover in a five-to-two vote, making Green Dot the first outside group ever to be allowed to run a traditional public school here. Green Dot already runs 12 small independent high schools of its own throughout the city's most troubled neighborhoods, including Watts.
When Green Dot takes charge next summer, Locke High will become a cluster of seven, maybe eight schools, each with no more than 500 students. Teachers and principals will have complete autonomy over their budget, curriculums, schedules, hiring and firing. The only thing left to negotiate with the school district is the money Green Dot will get up to $20 million, a deal could mean a hefty $10,000 salary increase for teachers.
You'd think that that would have persuaded every single teacher at Locke to support the takeover, but it didn't, says Bruce Smith, a mild-mannered veteran English teacher whose job it was to sell the takeover plan to the faculty.
Mr. BRUCE SMITH (English Teacher, Locke High School): I had many discussions with colleagues. And what I - what really occurred to me is that there are people who have spent their whole lives working in this school, or schools like this, and have never had any success that they're really proud of. And therefore, have been making excuses, for year after year, about why these kids can't learn and nothing can be done.
SANCHEZ: Teachers who voted against the takeover declined to talk to NPR about it. What's the point, they said. It's a done deal. But you'd have to be blind not to see how the bitter split among faculty members has lingered and affected the students.
(Soundbite of music)
SANCHEZ: In the hallway, just outside the school's band room, a few students sit on the floor, cross-legged as against the wall. It's hard to miss the gaping halls in the ceiling 12 feet above your heads. The students seem oblivious to the dangling wires and loose tiles.
Tyrell(ph), a junior, has mixed feelings about the takeover. Marcus(ph), a senior, says it's a hostile takeover at best.
TURELL: Yeah, we have a problem with Green Dot taking over, because they want high-class students to go here - like high scores.
MARCUS: There's a lot of talent here, but it's like nobody puts it to the test.
TURELL: If Green Dot come, the scores are going to be still low.
SANCHEZ: It's hard to say how many students here truly believe that somehow they're not deserving of a good school, or that Locke High will never change for the better, unless, of course, you throw out the bad kids and keep only the good ones, as one student put it.
There's no evidence that Green Dot has done that at any of its charter schools, which have their share of gang members, low-income kids, non-English speakers and teenagers who got to ninth grade not knowing how to read.
By throwing out the school's old contract with the city's powerful teacher's union - UTLA, United Teachers of Los Angeles - the new principals at Locke will be allowed to handpick the teachers and no one - not the union or the school district - will be able to force them to hire teachers they don't want.
NPR requested an interview with the union. It declined, perhaps, because it's fighting so many other battles with the school district. Still, the takeover of Locke High has so upset the status quo that UTLA filed a grievance to block the deal.
Julie Korenstein has sided with the union. She's been on the Los Angeles Board of Education over 20 years.
Ms. JULIE KORENSTEIN (Board Member, Los Angeles Board of Education; Chair, School Safety, Student Health and Human Services, and Human Relations Committee): As you may know, I did not vote to have Green Dot take over Locke High School. I thought that was simply a Board of Education throwing up their arms and saying, we can't fix it. Let someone else fix it. I would rather roll up my sleeve and found ways to help Locke, than just simply give it to a charter.
SANCHEZ: In the last five years, says Korenstein, the school district has lost about $1 billion to charter school outfits like Green Dot. Korenstein says those are public funds the school board no longer controls. So who knows what's going to happen at Locke next year?
Ms. KORENSTEIN: If things do not go right, the faculty continues to feud, the students are all over the place in terms of whether they like the idea or not. Personally, I did not want something horrible to happen on that campus. At the same time, I hate the thought that our children are guinea pigs for someone's grandiose idea.
SANCHEZ: That grandiose idea, if there is one, belongs to 48-year-old Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot. Sitting at his kitchen table in his quaint ranch-style home on a steep hill overlooking downtown L.A., Barr says this is not just about transforming one, dysfunctional high school, it's about transforming an entire school system.
Mr. STEVEN BARR (Founder, Green Dot): I'm in it for systemic change. I mean, I can't put it in clearness. My two-year-old - that you hear in the background -I'm not going to be happy when she goes to elementary, middle and high school going with some charter school. I would be happy when she goes to a great L.A.U.S.D. school, you know? And so the sooner it happens, the more kids we get to help and less suffering we're going to see in our city.
SANCHEZ: And Locke High, says Barr, is the first step in improving the public schools in Los Angeles.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.