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Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors: Fighting for the Soul of America's Toughest High School    by Alexander Russo Amazon.com order for
Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors
by Alexander Russo
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John Wiley & Sons, 2011 (2011)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Bob Walch

The story doesn't seem to change that much from decade to decade. American education, especially in inner city schools, continues its downward spiral with parents, teachers, administrators, union heads, politicians and the students themselves blaming one another for the failure of the system.

Occasionally a blip on the screen that monitors the steady decline indicates a somewhat successful, albeit usually short lived, attempt to reverse the downward trend. A single teacher, administrator or a dedicated group of individuals create a new system that promises to engage students, create a safe learning environment and even actually teach the youngsters something, thus fulfilling the promise of what public education is reputedly all about.

Like so many of the works that have gone before it, this book with its catchy title charts the attempt to turn a failed school into one that can become a model for change. Located in the Watts section of South Central Los Angeles, Locke High School went from a fairly decent school to one no one, neither the students nor the teachers, wanted to be at.

Then along came Steve Barr and his charter school group called Green Dot. Alexander Russo heard that Locke would be converted from a traditional district school into a charter school that would still have a unionized teaching staff and serve all the neighborhood children, so he applied for a fellowship to chronicle the attempt of Green Dot to fix the troubled school.

'We all want to believe that transformation is possible; that dire, stubborn situations can turn dramatically, unexpectedly better, at least some of the time. The possibility of change, after all, is a deep-rooted American narrative,' explains Russo. 'And so everyone wanted to believe that Locke could happen. I wasn't any different, a writer looking for a story to tell. I was just there longer than any other outsider.'

Over two years the author collected material and watched the process of Locke's transformation. Of course there were successes and improvements, but there were also setbacks and frustration as Green Dot also came under public scrutiny after some internal convulsions and charges that its program was expensive and incomplete.

Dividing the story into three parts - Desperate Measures, "New" Locke, and Becoming a School - Russo follows the ups and downs of the attempt to make Locke High the kind of school every parent wants for his son or daughter. As you would expect there were successes, but there were also failures; this book offers a total picture of the process. As he looks at what happened in this single school, the author also assesses the Green Dot approach and its strengths and weaknesses.

As a former high school teacher with nearly 40 years of classroom experience, I could tell you what I think of this experiment and how viable it really is. Rather than do that, though, I'll let you read this book without being fettered with my biases. Read carefully and think about what you find. Talk about it with other adults parents and teachers. Then you can decide for yourself if this sounds like a program or school you'd want your child enrolled in, or one you would want to support as a taxpayer.

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