05/09/2011 04:07 pm ET | Updated Jul 09, 2011

Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors

As the school year closes on hundreds of school turnarounds, the must-read book is Alexander Russo's Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors. Russo recounts the turnaround of Locke High School by Steve Barr and Green Dot.

I must declare two biases. I blog for Russo at This Week In Education. And being an inner city teacher, he won me over by making the urban classroom come alive. For instance, Russo describes the distractions of electronic devices and cell phones, that had also been used to videotape pre-planned fights. (I also loved his account the absurdity of "AB Block Scheduling," where one hundred minute classes met every other day.) So, I will leave it to other reviewers like Jay Mathews to describe Russo's outstanding contribution to policy debates, and focus on classroom issues.

Locke, like other schools, had a long history of just passing students on. Russo aptly describes the embarrassment of the many students who could not read, and the few who "couldn't read a text message." His accounts of the point systems used to coax work out of students and control classroom behavior are hilarious. Locke teachers "gave credit for every conceivable behavior" so "kids had to work at failing." Even so, over 40 percent failed their core classes by not coming to class, not doing any work, and not doing any makeup work.

One key to the Locke strategy was the enforcement of the dress code. Even though the new policy produced endless squabbling over little things like tucking in shirttails, one teacher explained, "It could have been anything. They just have to enforce something."

In fact, it was a minor dispute over tardiness that led to one of the book's most interesting dramas. David was bright, annoying, and disrespectful. David was failing most or all of his classes, but with the rational expectation that he would just do some extra worksheets to graduate. After finally pushing an administrator over the edge, the student texted a counselor who came to the rescue. Russo thus describes the omnipresent tensions between sincere educators who feel like that must draw a line somewhere, and equally committed advocates for students. David gets a final, last chance, and rubs salt in the educators' wounds by cutting class to get ready for the prom. David was not alone in making such a poor choice, however, because, "It's a ghetto thing, this prissiness."

The reason why Stray Dogs is such a compelling story is that Locke violated another rational expectation. The assumption at the beginning was that Locke would not try to keep its most difficult students, the "knuckleheads," and the kids with the more serious special education needs. After all, it is a safe assumption that most successful secondary school turnarounds dump their troublemakers on neighboring schools. Locke, however, invested $700,000 in security in order to avoid "creaming." Green Dot, for instance, had the good sense to address chronic hall walkers, who may come to school, but who refuse to go to class. It also established an alternative school within the school, even though it did not work out as well. I would like to learn more about that story.

By the second year, Locke "had really become a school." The culture was not perfect, said an assistant principal, and "you are going to get cussed out by an angry student once in a while." Of the 360 seniors who went through the graduation ceremony, 247 were eligible to get their diplomas. But, the English proficiency rate increased by 74 percent.

Green Dot founder, Steve Barr, may not have been perfect either, but he took the single best approach to reform. An extra $15 million from outside funders was invested. Green Dot used the flexibility of a charter, while retaining the stability provided by the union. Locke rejected the silly "quick fix" of claiming that improvements in classroom instruction can drive something as complex as a turnaround, and it addressed order and safety first. In fact, the teacher in me was disappointed by curriculum reforms instituted by Barr's successor, who brought in "a consultant's version of academics rather than a teacher's." But fundamentally, Russo tells the story of a reality-based reform. Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors should be required reading at 702 of the nation's 733 turnaround schools that adopted a different approach for the 2010-11 school year.