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Podcast: The “brutal work” of turnarounds

National education blogger Alexander Russo decided to write a book about the Green Dot Public Schools takeover and turnaround of Los Angeles’ troubled Locke High School because it was one of the most audacious efforts ever undertaken by a charter management organization. Russo’s book, “Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors”came out earlier this year. It gives the Locke turnaround effort a mixed review, and some of its subjects feel the same way about the book.

“All of the people in the book are mad at me and most of them are still not talking to me,” Russo said during an appearance in Denver last week. “And that’s sort of a good sign, I think.” Russo’s blog, This Week in Education, generates occasional controversy in the world of public education policy precisely because Russo, a former Captiol Hill staffer, doesn’t mind ruffling feathers on all sides of the education reform debate. His blog mixes news reporting with acerbic commentary on national education policy and local school issues, primarily in Chicago and New York, his two most recent homes. “Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors” singles out a few individuals at Locke and Green Dot for praise during the early years of the Locke turnaround effort. The South-Central L.A. school was a typical urban dropout factory. According to Russo, Green Dot’s takeover in 2008, employing its  hybrid unionized charter school model, led to some modest successes in reducing dropout rates, boosting achievement and upping graduation rates.

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But the school still has a long way to go, Russo concludes, and Green Dot and the L.A. Unified School District must share blame for the turnaround’s shortcomings. But Locke isn’t alone, Russo said. In his research, he said, he found not a single example of an urban turnaround he would consider successful. “School rescues are education’s dirtiest job,” Russo told a crowd of about 50 people at Colorado Education Association headquarters in central Denver. “This really is brutal work.”