With high schools, researchers did not have academic data to parse, so instead looked at attendance rates, which are often a good indicator of performance, de la Torre said. Attendance rates improved in the first year of a turnaround, but then reverted to pre-turnaround rates. “We can’t really say if the glass is half full or half empty,” de la Torre said.
A study released last May found graduation rates and college-prep course participation increased dramatically at a Los Angeles high school in the Watts section taken over by charter Green Dot Public Schools in 2008. The National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing called the new Locke High School “an impressive success story in many ways,” but noted overall achievement remains low.
To boost academic performance, Green Dot now plans to revamp its ninth-grade curriculum to offer more remedial help and open a middle school to better prepare kids for high school.
With no guarantee that turnarounds produce solid results quickly, some question whether drastic reform is worth the disruption, and whether less radical changes could work as well given adequate time and funding.
“We take issue with experimental reforms such as these when it is only children of color who are the subject of the experiment and especially when the experiment has already failed,” wrote Jonathan Stith of Empower DC in his federal complaint about Washington D.C. schools.
Staff replacements have proven especially problematic at schools where teachers have to reapply for their jobs. Many don’t reapply out of resentment and it’s hard to find experienced teachers who want to work in an urban classroom.
A study by the National Education Policy Center found that in turnaround schools in Louisville, Ken., 40 percent of teachers were fresh out of college. Other reformed schools have had to start off with substitutes.
“Teachers are like their surrogate parents,” said Christina Lewis, a special education teacher at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, where teachers will have to reapply for jobs in the fall when the school is converted to a magnet. “I’m so afraid that teachers who have put their hearts and souls into their jobs won’t return next year. We just need stability and resources.”
Experts also note that impoverished children often rely on schools for meals, positive role models, and mentors for personal issues, as well as education. Trust built with familiar faces in the school community gets severed by drastic reforms, said John Rogers, director at the University of California Los Angeles’ Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.
Several students at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, where teachers must reapply for their jobs when the school is converted to a magnet program next fall, said it was disconcerting not to know who or what to expect.
“We have a lot of kids in foster care. Their lives are changing all the time,” said Crenshaw student Anita Parker. “We have teachers who ask me if I need to talk. We have teachers who care about us.”
The prospect of a civil rights complaint does not faze Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy, who has several high schools on his turnaround list. For Deasy, the real civil rights issue is that these schools have been allowed to fail for so long.
Crenshaw High School, the turnaround that is spurring community advocates to file the complaint, is the lowest performing school in the nation’s second-largest system, a fact that Deasy called “immoral” at a recent school board meeting.
Just three percent of students are proficient in math and 17 percent in reading. Just 37 percent of students attend school 96 percent of the time. Just half of the class of 2012 graduated.
“Students aren’t learning. Students aren’t graduating,” he said. “The purpose of this decision is to make sure Crenshaw gets dramatically and fundamentally better.”
School board member Marguerite P. LaMotte, the board’s only black member who represents the Crenshaw area, said she was angry that every effort to reform Crenshaw had gone nowhere and civil rights was about improving the school: “We have got to change something at Crenshaw for the better.”