The Cost – and Impact – of Turning Around a Failing School

“As recently as 2008, Locke High School here was one of the nation’s worst failing schools, and drew national attention for its hallway beatings, bathroom rapes and rooftop parties held by gangs. For every student who graduated, four others dropped out.”

So begins the New York Times profile of a struggling Los Angeles high school and its turnaround effort under the guidance of California-based non-profit charter school operator Green Dot, which won control of Locke in 2008. Green Dot launched initiatives ranging from enhanced security to infrastructure improvements to reorganization. For example, it required the high school’s 120 teachers to reapply for their jobs and rehired only 40 of them.

These changes, which have been lauded by other reformers and the Department of Education web site, have come at a price. According to the article, Locke High School operates with an annual budget of $30 million financed entirely by taxes. Since Green Dot has taken over, they have been on track to spend an additional $15 million over four years on the turnaround effort.

“ When people hear we spent $15 million, they say, ‘You’re insane,’ ” said Marco Petruzzi, chief executive of Green Dot Public Schools, the nonprofit charter school group that has remade Locke. “But when you look closely, you see it’s not crazy.” ”

To be sure for most of us, $30 million annually, with an additional $15 million over four years, sounds like a lot of money. But compared to what?

The Center for High Impact Philanthropy was founded to answer questions like this one, with the mission of educating donors about impact-driven initiatives.

  • Based on the figures provided in the article, Locke’s annual cost per student – including additional turnaround funding – is in line with the national average. If anything, it seems low given the high level of need and empirically derived benchmarks: Divide the school’s total budget (including the turnaround initiative funding) by Locke’s 3200 students, and you get an annual per student spending of roughly $10,500. This is right in line with the 2007 national average for spending per student: $10,557, according to the EPE Research Center’s Education Counts database.
  • Based on the high cost of failing to educate these students (which the article briefly alludes to at the end), this also seems like a great investment. For example, in our Center’s first philanthropic investment guide in education, titled Pathways to Student Success: A Guide To Translating Good Intentions Into Meaningful Impact, our team explored the problem of high school drop out rates among at-risk, disadvantaged youth, highlighting opportunities for philanthropic help along each stage of the pathway. Each high school dropout costs society $209,100. If Locke’s turnaround successfully increases graduation rates by only 10 percent, that can translate into $67 million, a figure that dwarfs the $15 million of philanthropic dollars.

It is only by linking considerations of cost and impact and understanding reasonable benchmarks, that donors can identify which investments offer the greatest impact. For more on understanding return on investment for philanthropic funding, check out Melinda Tuan’s report for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which discusses ours and other approaches to measuring social return. And for more on how donors can improve student outcomes, be on the lookout for our upcoming guide on teaching quality, to be released this fall.