LOS ANGELES, Aug. 13, 2009 -- Located smack dab in the middle of multiple rival gang territories in the South Central area of Los Angeles, Locke High School was reputed to be one of the toughest schools in L.A.'s unified school district.
Fights occurred almost daily and in May 2008, a brawl involving a reported 600 students broke out in the middle of campus. Police in riot gear were called in and chaos ensued.
With some of the lowest test scores and highest dropout rates in the country, Locke High, which sends only 5 percent of its entering ninth grade class on to four-year colleges and universities, seemed like a sinking ship.
Then, in 2008, Green Dot Public Schools, a privately-funded charter organization, which now runs 12 charter schools in the highest-need areas of Los Angeles, stepped in. One of its first moves: reaching out to the community on foot.
Watch "Nightline" Tonight at 11:35 p.m. to see the story of the school's transformation.
Rachelle Alexander, a new principal at Locke High School, led a team that knocked on doors, inviting students and parents to get involved in the classroom before the start of the 2008 school year. It's part of a larger strategy to build trust.
"If you can go into the toughest school, in the toughest area and make a turnaround, what it's going to do is it's going to create a political tipping point in this city, for all people in this city," said Steve Barr, founder and CEO of Green Dot.
The Los Angeles Unified School District's 2007 decision to give control of a public high school to the charter organization was not without its share of controversy. Green Dot took control of Locke, dividing the urban public high school into six academies, with the ultimate goal of transforming the culture. And with its 3,500 students, Locke was to be Green Dot's biggest test.
"Nightline" followed the school for a year as it underwent this major transition.
Day One: Teachers Ready
In an attempt to redefine the Locke's leadership, Green Dot fired all the school's original teachers in 2007 and made them reapply for their jobs.
"We felt like it was a slap to our face, when someone said they could do the job that no one else was doing," said Zeus Cubias, a Locke alum, who has been a teacher in the district for the last 11 years.
"So many of us who had been working here for many years, without even knowing, we fell into habits. Whether it was bad habits or just kind of the habit of not caring," Cubias told ABC News.
Cubias reapplied for his job and is now assistant principle of one of the Locke academies. Before the school year's start, he said that Green Dot had already breathed new life into Locke, welcoming parents and fostering the community.
"I don't think parents have ever been welcomed to this school before," he said, becoming emotional. "It's like -- almost like a combination of wanting to prove people wrong. It's like, I'm going to show you that everything you said about this place is not true. And for the first time I think we're going to do that."
Green Dot Gives Locke Face-Lift
In September 2008, the first day under Green Dot's operation, Locke already looked like a totally different school; security patrolled the campus, walls that were once covered in graffiti got a much-needed paint job, and new trees made the campus feel more like a college quad instead of the prison yard it had become.
Students arrived for the school year wearing new uniforms with tucked-in shirts. Instead of absences as the institutionalized norm, if students were late, they were locked out of the classroom and received detention.
While the campus itself received a face-lift for opening day, whether Green Dot can really make a difference in the lives of its students will be difficult to measure. In a community like Watts, kids face huge pressures outside of school.
Brandon Stafford, a freshman at Locke, had already been suspended three times just a few months into the 2008 school year. Outside of school, he said he faced challenges on streets of his neighborhood.
"Fights, stuff like that, like on the way home through the wrong neighborhood," Brandon said. "They're [gangs] pretty bad ... like, like you can't walk down the street without getting asked where you're from."
Locke's six academies are separated by walls and uniform color. Each has its own principal and schedule. Brandon was in one of the ninth grade academies with 150 other students. At the academies, all teachers work as advisers, in addition to their teaching duties and Paige Thompson is Brandon's.
"He'll kind of have weeks where he might be dealing with something at home, but he'll have phases where he'll come in and he'll be the main one in my class answering questions, but then he'll have days where he'll come in and be the main one just talking," Thompson said.
For Brandon, a little attention and intervention went a long way. But will it be enough?
In past years, Locke had abysmal retention rates, losing as much as 75 percent of a freshman class by the time the class graduated. For Alma Flores, a 16-year-old high school junior, school posed a challenge from day one. At the start of the school year, Alma's stepfather was arrested; she left a street gang, and was also six months pregnant, making it especially difficult to concentrate on schoolwork.
"You're doing your school work and at the same time you're thinking about the problems at home," she said.
Alma said she felt the pressure, juggling the stress of school with the baby.
"Right now, I don't know how I'm gonna do it with the baby," she said.
With a rough pregnancy, Alma ended up missing most of the fall semester but was determined not to drop out. She said she needed to stay in school to "get an education and get a good job to help my mom."
Determined Students Fight Drop-Out Rates
In his three years at Locke, senior Jimmy Stovall said he often thought about dropping out. Last year, he had mostly failing grades, and despite improvements during this past school year, he was still on the brink of not graduating.
It didn't help that Jimmy was frequently late for school, but he got a bit of a break because of his troubled home life. Jimmy's father, a gang member, had been in prison for most of his life; and in 2007, his mother died of lupus, leaving him and his seven brothers and sisters to move in with his retired grandmother.
"My mom was like ... like my backbone, like your spinal cord, that's what my mom was, part of my body," he said. "Sometimes I think I could just throw the towel in, like I think, I can't do it no more. It's just impossible for me to continue on with my life like this."
Even with the odds stacked against Jimmy, Cubias, the assistant principal, said he saw a determination in him that he didn't see last year.
"Jimmy is genuinely putting in effort. Does that mean that he's figured out all his problems? Obviously not. I mean, he still shows up late almost consistently. But that's an improvement from not showing up at all," Cubias said.
How students like Brandon, Alma and Jimmy fare will largely depend on how quickly Green Dot can change the culture of this failing school.
School Scrambles to Address Culture of Violence
Throughout the year, teachers and administrators scramble to address the multitude of challenges, from school safety to test scores. Locke has seen small successes, with attendance rates reaching 90 percent for the first time in years.
But Locke can't shield its students from the violence just outside its gates. In April 2009, one of its students was shot on the edge of the campus.
"This happens. This is Watts, and there are 20 something known gang territories that intersect on this corner," Barr explains. "We pushed the gangs off of campus. But you can only push them so far."
Despite the shooting outside, a relative calm persisted on campus. Administrators said that would not have been the case a year ago.
"It just kind of reinforced why we need to change things," said Cubias. "There is a reality behind these gates, and this could be one of the few places that we could set up so that kids stop facing that reality or that reality changes a little bit."
Students' Performance Shows Promise
Brandon Stafford was slowly making a turnaround -- and by May 2009, even his grades had improved.
"Last year I got like D's, all D's and F's. Now, this year I have like A's, B's and C's," he said.
Green Dot mandated that parents volunteer at least 35 hours on campus. Brandon's mother, Debra Watkins, went beyond, and for that, she was rewarded with a certificate recognizing her volunteer work.
"It's important to get involved because if you don't, the kids will think you don't care. And if you stay focused and let them know that you're there for them I think that plays a good part in them being interested in their work," said Watkins.
Meanwhile, Alma spent the spring semester in a home-schooling program, allowing the new mother to catch up on her credits while she took care of her baby. She was determined to get her diploma for the sake of her family.
Small Victories, but Major Challenges Remain
At the end of the 2008-2009 school year, Locke had fewer dropouts than in recent memory. While that was small victory for Green Dot, a lot of work remains to raise reading levels and testing scores.
"It's all about culture," Barr said. "We really didn't anticipate how excited the kids would be immediately. Because we were told by the adults 'the kids are this, the kids are that,' and the kids are starved for it. They're starved for structure. They were starved for the bar being set higher."
During the last week of school, while Jimmy was studying for his finals, the rest of his siblings went to visit his father in prison.
"I wanted to go, but I couldn't make it because I have finals, and that's very important. I miss that, and I wouldn't be walking right now," he said. "I've never taken finals this seriously."
With finals complete, Jimmy successfully graduated. He said that graduating would be the happiest day of his life -- the only thing missing was his mom.
This year, Locke graduated the second highest number of students in its history and sent more students to four-year universities than ever before. Jimmy said he hoped he'd be the first in his family to get there too.
"[Before] I didn't care too much about college. I just wanted to get a high school diploma and college was the last thing on my mind," he said. "Since Green Dot came they pushed me more. I think I can go to college and do something."