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Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors: Fighting for the Soul of America's Toughest High School

ISBN: 978-1-118-00175-2
256 pages
April 2011, Jossey-Bass
Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors: Fighting for the Soul of America


The inside story of the most-watched attempt to transform a troubled high school

Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors tells the real-life story of Locke High School. Locke High– originally known for its excellence–became one of the toughest, most dysfunctional schools in the nation. Then in 2007 teachers voted to bring in an upstart charter school organization called Green Dot to try and restore the Locke Saints' past glory. It was a brave and desperate move. Working in secrecy, the school principal, a small group of teachers, and Green Dot's charismatic founder, Steve Barr, convince Locke teachers to support a petition that will take the school away from the Los Angeles Unified School District. The "new" Locke opened in the fall of 2008.

  • Offers an in-depth look at a school "turnaround" effort that garnered a blizzard of publicity
  • Russo's blog This Week in Education was named by The Washington Post as one of its best education blogs of 2010
  • Tells the gritty truth about the tough work of true school reform

Locke's transformation shows that with hard work and sacrifice, broken schools can indeed be improved in meaningful ways. However, the process of school reform is one of the most vital, and least glamorous, projects that we can participate in.

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Table of Contents


Character List.


PART ONE Desperate Measures.

1 Desperate School Reform Superstar.

2 Getting Locke.

3 Year in Limbo.

4 Unlikely Leader.

5 Scrambling for Teachers.

6 The Gate.

PART TWO "New" Locke.

7 "New" Locke.

8 Stray Dogs in the Quad.

9 In the Classroom.

10 Shocktober.

11 Mayall's Revenge.

12 Rogue Cops.

13 "May"-hem.

14 Drinks at Prom.

15 Shooting on San Pedro.

16 The New Yorker.

17 "We Did It, Y'All."

PART THREE Becoming a School.

18 The New Face of Green Dot.

19 Barr Steps Down.

20 Turnaround Fever.

21 Doing It All Over Again.

22 Becoming a School.

23 Firing Everyone.

24 Always a Saint.


Selected Sources.

About the Author.


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Author Information

Alexander Russo is an education writer whose work has appeared in Slate, Miller-McCune, Washington Monthly, Chicago Magazine, The Huffington Post, and The Washington Post. He's the author of three blogs: This Week In Education, District 299, and Hot For Education. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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“Alexander Russo’s new book on the remaking of Locke High in Los Angeles… is a must-read, nerve-jangling thrill ride…. I plan to read the book again…. Anyone interested in fixing bad schools anywhere in the country should do the same. We will never have a better guide to how to do this right, and wrong.”
Jay Matthews, Washington Post

Stray Dogs is definitely worth a read, especially since the book reads more like a thriller than your run-of-the-mill school turnaround story…, painting a gritty portrait that readers may find tough to believe outside of a Hollywood film. Actual suspense is built as we’re taken into secret meetings and brought through confrontations.”
Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld

“Here, finally, is a book that recognizes the excruciatingly incremental pace of school reform and the monumental significance of the community's willingness to stick it out. Russo delivers…in this well-balanced, complicated account of school reform.”
Laura Varlas, ASCD Express

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Press Release

May 31, 2011
Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors

Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors

San Francisco, CA - There are no easy answers to improving public education but there are glimpses of hope and possibility if you know where to look for them.  Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors: Fighting for the Soul of America’s Toughest High School (Jossey-Bass; 978-1-118-00175-2; April 2011) by well-known education blogger Alexander Russo, shows us one:  the story of a struggling Los Angeles high school where a handful of educators came up with a secret plan to break free of the district and the teachers union and rescue the students – and themselves.

For years, Locke High School was one of the most violent, least successful schools in Los Angeles. But then, using an obscure legal maneuver, the teachers there gave control over to an upstart nonprofit charter school organization called Green Dot, which promised to provide a better, safer school for everyone. The move drew the attention of the education world. Could Green Dot actually deliver on what it promised?  Would Locke improve substantially enough to make the upheaval worth it?

While the mainstream media went back and forth regarding the school’s success, the school itself experienced a mix of occasional setbacks and incremental successes.  Given free rein to cover the effort over two years, Russo gets to the heart of what it’s really like to turn around a broken high school, taking readers beyond the snapshots provided by newspapers and magazine. Transformation does not happen overnight, he argues, but meaningful improvement has taken place. Three years in, the “new” Locke is a place where things are much, much better than they used to be (even if stray dogs from the surrounding neighborhood still sometimes wander onto campus for scraps of food and affection).

School reform is neither glamorous nor easy, but it is possible, and that’s why this is a must-read for all those who care about our nation’s system of education (and everyone who works at a struggling school that’s attempting to turn itself around).

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