04/11/2008 06:54 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

An Outrageous Education

Walking through the prison-like gates of Locke High School in Watts last week it was hard not to summon up Dante's admonition to those on the threshold of hell: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here." Graffiti was everywhere -- on the walls, on the floors, on the benches, on the flagpole. Though classes were in session, kids were everywhere, too -- aimlessly roaming the halls, hanging outside in the quad, kicking in the bathrooms. Relatively speaking, it was a good day at Locke. Ever since last September when the Los Angeles Unified School District widened the school's enrollment area to include a swath of Bloods' turf -- and simultaneously reduced security -- there had been internecine fighting between rival Crips and Bloods gangs on a campus which until then had been exclusively Crips territory. Early on in the year, an assistant principal had been assaulted and hospitalized. Over the previous few weeks, three fires have been set; violence reached a new, all-time low recently when a lockdown was imposed after parents stormed the campus and started brawling alongside their little gangstas.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the saga of Locke, let me back up. Here's the short version: When Locke opened in the wake of the infamous Watts riots, it was seen as a beacon of hope in a blighted neighborhood. Forty-one years on, it is one of the poorest performing high schools in L.A., which, given the appalling state of urban education in California today, automatically qualifies it to be in the running for the title of Lousiest High School in America. You don't believe me? Consider this: 1,000 or so kids started 9th grade at Locke in 2001, about 240 graduated in 2005, and some 30 actually qualified to apply to a California state public university. Translation: Three percent of the Class of 2005 met the minimum requirements for admission to a UC or Cal State campus. You don't need a high school diploma to figure out what happened to the rest of the class: no doubt an unacceptably high number are either dead or in prison.

Though Locke is an extreme case of what President Bush, in one of the most memorable quotes of his presidency, called "the soft bigotry of low expectations," it is by no means an isolated case. According to a report issued last week by America's Promise Alliance, only 70% of all U.S. students graduate on time with a regular diploma, and about 1.2 million drop out annually. Things are worse in urban schools. Graduating from high school in one of America's largest 50 cities, says the report: "amounts, essentially, to a coin toss;" 52% of urban students complete high school with a diploma. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose wife Alma is chairwoman of the Alliance, called the situation a "catastrophe."

And what would cause society to countenance such a national catastrophe?

Racism, posits Marco Petrucci, President and COO of Green Dot, the upstart charter organization that is set to take control of Locke High School on July 1. What else can it be? he asks, citing a well-worn observation that if 50% of the trash in LA didn't get picked up, there would be rioting in the streets and the mayor would be out of a job. "But somehow, 50% of our kids drop out of school and there's not a peep," he says. "No one says anything. I don't get it, where is the outrage?"

Former LA Schools Superintendent Gov. Roy Romer, chairman of Ed in '08, the advocacy group pushing to make education a major campaign issue this year, explains it this way: "We don't care enough about educating urban kids. We don't care enough about black and brown kids in the inner city, and we don't care enough about poor kids -- it's poor as much as it is racial. We just don't care enough."

Locke students have their own take on the problem. Says one student with a shrug: "We ghetto."

I don't get it, where is the outrage?

Donna Foote is a former Newsweek correspondent whose new book "Relentless Pursuit, a Year in the Trenches with Teach For America," (Knopf, April, 2008) chronicles the experiences of four Teach for America recruits assigned to teach in L.A.'s Locke High School.