How Green Dot Charter Turned Around L.A.’s Worst Schools

At L.A.’s worst high schools, gangs controlled the bathrooms and students regularly set hanging artwork on fire. Today, Green Dot Public Schools have dramatically increased graduation rates and college preparedness at a fraction of the cost. Here’s how they did it.

How Green Dot Charter Turned Around L.A.’s Worst Schools

“We treat each principal like the CEO of the school,” says Marco Petruzzi, CEO of Green Dot Public Schools, which has undertaken the ambitious task of turning around Los Angeles’s worst schools, all while keeping a unionized teaching force and spending roughly a fourth as much on each college-ready graduate as the city did before.


Rather than centrally manage every school, each Green Dot charter is run like a startup: The staff is given broad discretionary powers over finance, faculty are given the reins to innovate with a new curriculum, and the union contract is performance-based rather than a guarantee of minimum work requirements. To maintain its unusual level of collaboration, a Green Dot overhaul physically splits schools into autonomous units of around 500 students (in some cases, by using chicken wire for temporary walls).

A UCLA-Gates Foundation study released today shows that Green Dot’s prescription is paying off, with 25% higher graduation rates (80% vs. 55%) and 35% higher college readiness (48% vs. 13%). Green Dot even managed to bring sanity to one of L.A.’s worst schools, Locke, where rival gangs maintained control over bathrooms and students regularly set hanging artwork on fire.

Green Dot’s example has impressed educators. “I would love the culture where it’s the fear not to do it better, as opposed to the fear to try it differently,” says John Deasy, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is trying to instill Green Dot’s sense of urgent innovation into the culture of the nation’s second-largest school district.

Collaborative Everything

 “Trustful relationships with adults is ultimately everything that matters,” argues Petruzzi, who caught up with Fast Company at the Summit Series annual conference in Lake Tahoe, Calif. Teachers, students, staff, and parents are given unusually broad authority to collaborate on the master curriculum and the entire school budget. For the former non-Green Dot teachers we spoke with, the unexpected empowerment was a pleasant change.


“There was a situation that came up where there was a bunch of science money that needed to get spent ASAP, otherwise it was going to go away,” recalls Ánimo Pat Brown science teacher Alexis Hanson. “Somebody had just gone an ordered whatever, spent all the money…it wasn’t necessarily what you wanted.” In contrast, at Green Dot, she rummages through the scientific catalog and deliberates with teachers and students about the trade-offs of big purchases.

Each one of the four teachers we interviewed said that while, technically, their former schools encourage collaboration, the promises never bore out. “The principal would avoid our meetings, and not show up,” says math teacher Marla Mata.

On the curriculum, one of the first decisions the faculty made was to inject writing instruction in every single course, even math. “In most schools, writing is for English; at our school, everyone does writing,” says Mata. Green Dot has its eye on universal college enrollment, and solid writing skills have long been critical to surviving the college transition (when I taught college writing, it was commonly assumed that most incoming students didn’t come prepared). Because of its whole-school outlook, Green Dot’s faculty can make interdepartmental decisions that would elude a less collaborative school.

Budget trade-offs also become simpler. For instance, teachers in extraordinarily expensive classes for the gifted or disadvantaged can ask their colleagues to sacrifice their own budgets to serve these high-need students. As a result, Pat Brown allocated thousands for digital reading software for special needs students and a robotics class for their burgeoning engineers. “It’s not like one department is trying to edge out the other,” says physics and robotics teacher Andrew Osterhaus, who argues that he’d never lobby for a luxurious science field trip at the cost of other departments. “Why would we do that to Read 180?…We’re working together, not against each other.”

Students, too, get in on the planning action. Pat Brown’s school newspaper informs students about upcoming budgetary decisions, and surveys the more civically active students to weigh in on priorities. One such article reads:

The schools budget for next year will be $4.2 million. All of the decisions to how the money will be spent will be decided by the School Advisory Council (SAC)…Students on the SAC such as Junior Karla Hernandez and Senior Enrique Garcia have helped make sure our interests are also met. Due to some cutting of the funds for APB’s staff retreat and certain conferences, $1548 was left over and students suggested that the money be used to buy new graphing calculators.

As a result of the collaboration, Green Dot has been able to achieve (preliminary) impressive results, while spending about a quarter of what LAUSD typically spends on educating a college-ready graduate (calculation based on approximation from Petruzzi). Where does the savings come from? While Petruzzi says that sifting through LAUSD’s balance sheet is as difficult as searching for specific pins in stack of pins, well-run schools squeeze more efficiency out of each position. During Locke’s Mad Max artwork-on-fire days, there were two full-time janitors painting over graffiti. Now that the graffiti is mostly gone, Green Dot can allocate more money toward education.


A New Union Contract Embraces “Unless”

Unlike many charter schools, which live like independent renegades off the grid, Green Dot’s path to mainstream adoption would come on union-paved roads. Instead of shunning them, Green Dot simply threw out what it considered to be the most self-destructive elements, such as tenure and inflexibility in class size.

For instance, while the phone-book-size LAUSD union contract stipulates hiring mandates for class size down to the exact number of students, Green Dot’s contract, at 1/10th the length, simply asks teachers talk through any decisions beyond 33 students per class:

If any individual class exceeds thirty three (33) students, there will be a conference between the affected teacher and the principal. Through this dialogue options will be discussed to offer ameliatory measures, e.g., lower class sizes in other sections, instructional aide support, limited adjunct supervisorial duties, additional curricular support materials, and other ideas which may come into the discussion.

“I chose to take 35 students in my anatomy and physiology class, because there were that many kids who wanted to take it,” says Hanson, with a chuckle of humility, “and, I didn’t want to deprive them of the experience.”


Before Green Dot, when Mata and Osterhaus wanted to extend Locke’s school day to teach a study skills course, “everyone turned on us, including the union,” Mata says. Volunteering more hours was expressly prohibited.

“I was making people look bad, was what I was told” echos special needs English teacher, Catherine Perez, saying she was also privately reprimanded for unauthorized teaching at her old school, beyond that stipulated in the union contract. (The major LAUSD union, UTLA, declined our offer to respond to criticisms.)

The cost of autonomy, explains Superintendent Deasy, is greater accountability. At Green Dot, this means no tenure. But, the teachers we spoke with didn’t seem to mind life without a safety net. “If we’re not doing a good job, we probably shouldn’t be here,” argues Osterhaus.

Green Dot’s alternative union structure is part and parcel of a larger aim: Change the face of public education. Unlike other charters, Green Dot is using LAUSD’s existing rules, resources, and students–just organizing them in a radically different way.

The strategy seems to be making waves. Deasy says Green Dot helped inspire a new union contract that gives broader autonomy to schools and more flexibility in union work rules.

If UCLA’s new study is any indication, Green Dot could be well on its way to making a sizable and positive dent in America’s troubled education system.


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[Images: Top image courtesy Green Dot; rotator image via Flickr user England]

About the author

I am a writer and an educator. As a writer, I investigate how technology is shaping education, politics, Generation Y, social good, and the media industry