The subtitle of Alexander Russo’s STRAY DOGS, SAINTS, AND SAVIORS is “Fighting for the Soul of America’s Toughest High School,” and that about sums it up. Russo provides an engrossing account of how high-profile reformer Steve Barr and his colleagues at Green Dot, a charter school management organization, attempted to turn around Locke High School, a “dropout factory” in the Watts section of South Central Los Angeles.
For those unfamiliar with Steve Barr or Green Dot, the Green Dot schools differ from most charters in that they are unionized. In fact, they compete with the existing union (in this case the UTLA) by offering a thinner, more professional contract. Teachers work longer hours but have more autonomy and are less vulnerable to typical union working condition challenges (such as getting bumped out of your school by someone else who has seniority). In the case of Locke, a majority of teachers at Locke actually voted to be taken over by Green Dot. That tells you something.
Russo focuses his attention on the work of the teachers and administrators as they attempt this transition. The stories he tells express the essence(s) of how challenging this work really is—the actual work of human beings trying to do something meaningful. I spend a lot of time consulting in schools where people find themselves in various states of struggling to make things better, and I always feel pulled in two different directions. On the one hand, it seems like we should have figured more of this out by now. On the other hand, the problems are multi-faceted and thorny and subject to the limitations of human capacity. Russo conveys those nuances in compelling ways.