Grace Ambrossi, Laura Londoño, Mariana Suarez, and Nathan File
California’s Green Dot is a non-profit organization centered in Downtown LA. This CMO was founded in 1999 in direct response to the poor state of the Los Angeles public schools. At the time, half of the students from the Los Angeles Unified School district did not graduate, while the half that did struggled in college. The schools from the LAUS district struggled with issues of overcrowding, which has lead to bigger classroom sizes. A decade later, the district continued to have very low high school completion rates with only 61.6 percent of students graduating in 2012. Overall, students in the Los angeles school district had been low performing academically. Because a third of the students were English Language Learners and the size of the classrooms kept growing, the lack of attention given to individual students and general overcrowding, the test results for the school were falling behind. Green Dot became the only school network in the country to lead the successful turnaround of a large high school (3,000+ students). This led the school to be featured as the leader of school turnarounds by the US Department of Education (Green Dot Website).
In August 2000, Green Dot opened its schools with just 140 students coming in to start freshman year of high school. Green Dot was able to achieve better student outcomes with the same student population and lower per pupil funding than the district or unionized schools could. Today, the schools have been able to grow in order to accommodate 11,000 additional students in multiple cities such as Memphis, TN and Tacoma, WA. While Green Dot does have significant issues within its schools in terms of who is allowed in and the environment for teachers and administrators, Green Dot has been an overall force for good in downtown Los Angeles education.
In an effort to better understand California’s Green Dot Schools, an online number generator was used in order to select six Green Dot Schools for thorough investigation. These schools were used as case studies through which to examine federal, state, and CMO data. Though it was harder to find data for some of the schools, specifically Animo Ellen Ochoa Middle School, data from all six schools and from multiple sources provided necessary information in order to study the mission and effects of Green Dot Schools.
History, Pedagogy, Mission
The Green Dot organization was founded by Steve Barr in 1999 and consists of 18 public schools. In 2006, Green Dot opened five charter schools in the area of Los Angeles that had the most struggling high schools. In 2008, a majority of permanent teachers at the schools in the area voted to reconstitute their underperforming schools as Green Dot Charter Schools. That same year, the Los Angeles Times wrote about concerns that the schools being operated by Green Dot during their regular school year and predicted that the attempt would fail. When school officials began to look further into the project, generally positive test scores and student performances were found. Though this is a promising find, it remains unclear whether this success was due to the fact that children went through a screening process that showed them to be good students prior to being admitted or whether these were children who would’ve done significantly worse at a different school. Today, there is a higher graduation rate from the high schools included in the Green Dot group than from those found in the Unified School District. Green Dot’s mission, in its own words is “to help transform public education so all students graduate prepared for college, leadership and life” (Mission, Green Dot Website).
California’s Green Dot Schools consist of mostly Hispanic and Black students, with several White students among other minorities. Hispanic students outnumber Black students at all but one of the charter schools (Alain Leroy Locke College Preparatory Academy). Green Dot Schools contain significantly more students of color than the rest of the Los Angeles Unified School District; in comparison to the rest of the Los Angeles Unified School District, Green Dot Schools contain eight percent more Hispanic students, and six percent more Black students proportionally.
Other demographic factors also show major differences between Green Dot Schools and their surrounding district. With regard to socioeconomic status, Green Dot Schools represent 18% more low-income students than the Los Angeles Unified School District at 94% of the school populations. They house approximately 5% fewer English Language Learners than LAUSD, and 2% fewer Special Education Students. The visuals below illustrate the diversity of Green Dot Schools in isolation of the rest of the LAUSD, in addition to a comparison between Green Dot Schools and the rest of the LAUSD with regard to these factors.
Green Dot Schools pride themselves in their academic performance. According to the Cowen institute, Green Dot schools “average more than 76 points higher on the California Academic Performance Index.” This means that Green Dot Schools are not only doing better than the rest of the Los Angeles Unified School District, but they are also considerably higher achieving than both district and charter schools in the rest of the state of California when analyzing overall performance in the state. Furthermore, Green Dot Schools sit among the highest performing schools in the country, placed in the top 2.5% of schools nationally according to the U.S. News and World Report list (Green Dot Public Schools). Green Dot Schools achieve higher test scores in both reading and math in comparison to the rest of the state of California as evidenced by Green Dot’s student achievement data (Civil Rights Data Collection).
According to collected data from the DOE OCR, Hispanic and Black students are most frequently the recipients of disciplinary reprimands including suspensions and arrests (Civil Rights Data Collection). These students also make up the majority of the student population in the schools, so the percentage of disciplined students under any one category is frequently negligible given that they belong to a large category.
Schools vary with regard of total disciplinary reprimands and the number of disciplinary reprimands as a percentage of the total student population. This indicates that factors outside of the schools’ discipline programs influence the behavior of students within any given school.
Green Dot Schools claim to have a “progressive discipline plan” in place at each of its schools (2016/2017 Green Dot Public Schools California Student Policy Manual). The progression of this plan consists of teacher detentions, followed by administrative detentions, suspensions, and finally expulsions. Green Dot Schools use a “Matrix for Suspension/Expulsion Recommendations,” categorizing offenses and the necessary actions to be taken by the school thereafter.
Marketing and Media
Green Dot Schools wants you to feel immediately that it is not like other charters. It dissociates itself with the broad ideas of charters from the jump, using “Green Dot Public Schools” in its website heading, and scarcely mentioning even the word “charter” throughout its site.
Figure 4It asserts its unique encouragement of teacher unionization, no admission requirements other than entering a lottery, and lower funding per pupil than nearby public school districts to further this distinction. In a 2015 LA Times piece on Green Dot, the CMO’s fingerprint covers the language, reading as a long-form advertisement. The writer emphasizes these distinctions between Green Dot and other charters, without mention of any real concerns or issues within the schools, which certainly exist. Brett Wyatt, a former teacher at a Green Dot school, described his and other staff’s experiences on Diane Ravitch’s blog. Wyatt mentions frequent teacher and administrator resignations due to “unsafe working conditions” because of violent students who weren’t sufficiently punished, as well as “limited future advancement” for staff because of broken evaluation and incentive systems.
Green Dot actively builds distance between itself and other charters to dispel the growing notion of charters as problematic, corporation-based institutions. Instead, it highlights a track record of turning around many underperforming schools, and touts praise from the Department of Education, and several news outlets. The CMO has invested significantly in the marketing of this preferred vision, with news stories as well as its own videos, which simultaneously broadcast inclusivity and exclusivity. None of Green Dot’s website or vimeo account is in Spanish, suggesting a continuation of the trend mentioned by Kevin G. Welner of charter schools that selectively market to English speakers only (Welner 2013). Starting up in Los Angeles and attempting to serve lower-performing schools, one must conclude this could not have been an honest oversight. Nor does Green Dot offer welcoming marketing material for special needs students. Indeed, our demographic data indicates fewer English Language Learner and special needs students attend Green Dot schools than other local schools.
At the same time, Green Dot almost exclusively uses Latino and African American students in its promotional imagery, attempting to advertise and attract diverse student body. They’ve accomplished this goal of racial diversity, enrolling more students of color than other local schools. This contradiction reflects a trend in charter schools to be very selective in how diverse and accepting they truly wish to be. It allows charters to potentially select a group of students that they know can be successful, and ignore students who may have difficulties. A school’s success rates can be inflated this way, filling a school with students who may have been successful no matter what kind of school they attended.
Accountability and Oversight
Green Dot schools are directly operated by the CMO. Instead of building its own schools, Green Dot’s model involves taking control of pre-existing schools, and implementing their own policies and practices. Green Dot makes this clear, marketing itself as leaders of school turnaround. There isn’t direct data available regarding how much annual funding goes from each school to the Green Dot CMO. While Green Dot does provide some lengthy financial statements on its website primarily focused on budgets and public funding, it is unclear what money goes back from the schools to the CMO. Green Dot has been clear of any financial scandal or obvious conflicts of interest.
The Green Dot California schools use both public and private funding to support their initiative of providing a high-quality education. In 2004, Green Dot received a $2.8 million grant from the Broad Foundation in order to “help build additional charter schools” but there was no data on whether this grant was successfully used for this purpose(Buchanan 2004). Additionally, the Green Dot Public Schools lost in its bid for a Race to the Top grant in 2012 of $30 million (Blume 2012). This came as a huge blow to the Green Dot schools as a whole since per-pupil funding for public charter schools in California has steadily declined since 2008 (Financials, Green Dot Website).
Professional development is an integral part of Green Dot’s mission in order to ensure that teachers and administrators are learning and growing alongside their students. This system provides teachers with “curriculum specialists to improve practice,” “school leaders who spend the majority of their time on instruction, observation and coaching,” and professional networks with other Green Dot teachers in a series called “All Green Dot Days” (FAQ, Green Dot Website) Additionally, unlike most other charter school organizations in the United States, the Green Dot California school teachers and staff are organized under a union called Asociación de Maestros Unidos (AMU).
Relationship to District
Green Dot Public Schools were created in response to the dismal graduation rate and preparation of students at the Los Angeles Unified District high schools. Green Dot schools outperform its district schools in both their graduation rate and their number of students admitted to four-year universities. For example, in 2004, 80% of Green Dot students graduated on time whereas only 45.3% graduated from LAUSD high schools (The Gates Foundation). Because of its success and retention rate, Green Dot is considered “the leading Turnaround school operator” (Scholastic 2007). One of its most controversial transformations is of the Locke High School, which was one of the worst performing schools in the district. The controversy materialized from the “signatures of interest” that Green Dot had collected from Locke faculty members as part of their formal takeover plan for the school (Rubin 2007). The district rejected the plan claiming that many of the signatures themselves were invalid because faculty members were confused by the “proposed takeover”(Rubin 2007). District officials explained to faculty members that signing the petition “put their district employment at risk” and did not necessarily translate to a guaranteed position with Green Dot. Learning this, many of those who had initially signed the petition rescinded their signatures. Green Dot needed a majority of faculty members to be in agreement with their plan; therefore, they claimed that this was a tactic by the district to undermine their plans for Locke. Nevertheless, Locke was eventually taken over by Green Dot in 2008 (Rubin 2007). Now, students attending Locke “are 1.5x more likely to graduate” than students at other district schools (About, Green Dot Website). Ultimately, Green Dot schools are currently leading the district in serving its low-income and minority students.
The purpose of this thorough examination is to answer the question: Are Green Dot Schools an overall beneficial or detrimental force in their community? Unsurprisingly, as is with many CMO’s and charter schools, the answer is complex. It appears like the Green Dot public school initiative allowed students, especially minority students, better educational opportunities in a struggling downtown Los Angeles. The public school system that Green Dot sought to replace was poorly prepared students for life beyond middle and high schools. Their repeated ability to turn around these formally failing schools is undoubtedly impressive, now ranking amongst the best in LA, California and the US. Maybe this is in part because the schools are very selectively choosing which kinds of students get access to this education; are they the students who were much more likely to succeed no matter where they went? Signs point to yes, with fewer english language learners and special needs students. Additionally, there are questions as to whether or not Green Dot Produces a positive environment for its teachers.
However, despite these issues Green Dot has objectively enlarged and enriched education opportunities for children in downtown Los Angeles. There is no perfect school, and hopefully as Green Dot continues its mission across the country, it can widen its enrolled student pool, and become a more attractive place for teachers.
“2016/2017 Green Dot Public Schools California Student Policy Manual.” (2016)
“About Us.” Green Dot Public Schools.
Blume, Howard. “Southland schools come up empty in contest for federal grants.” LA Times (December 11, 2012)
Blume, Howard. “Green Dot, based in LA, plans to open schools in other states”, LA Times (July 1st 2014)
Buchanan, Joy. “$2.8 Million Donated for Charter Schools.” LA Times (March 16, 2004)
“Civil Rights Data Collection.” Civil Rights Data Collection.
“FAQs.” Green Dot Public Schools.
“Financials.” Green Dot Public Schools
“Green Dot to Open 10 New College-Prep High Schools in Watts”, The Gates Foundation.
Rubin, Joel. “District blunts Locke High’s revolt.” LA Times (June 2, 2007).
“The Rise of Green Dot Schools.” Scholastic (June 2008).
Welner, Kevin G “The Dirty Dozen: How Charter Schools Influence Student Enrollment.” Teachers College Record (2013)
Wyatt, Brett. “The Inside Story of a Green Dot Charter School.” dianeravtich.net (June 5th 2013)