This post has taken a while because I haven’t been sure how to write it. I am not great at traditional book reviews because as a lover of literature my reactions to books-good or bad- are often visceral thus hard to put into words. So it was with Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors, Fighting for the Soul of America’s Toughest High School by Alexander Russo. On top of being a book geek, I am an educator who gets all wound up over the topic of school reform (especially since moving to Jersey). As you can imagine, reviewing this piece was a double whammy.
I have so many sentences underlined and so many exclamation points in the margin of this book, I wasn’t sure what to share. Should I comment on how something simple like grass and trees can make a huge difference or if teacher professional development isn’t a non-negotiable, it all might fall apart? There are so many statements about school reform, educators, administrators and every other player involved that had me shouting, “yes!” I wanted to just reprint parts of this book to make sure people read them. School reform stories are electrically charged. This one is no exception and because I fear I could go off on several tangents, I’ll just stick to the book, not the issues it brings out.
Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors is the story of Locke High School. Located in the infamous Watts section of South Central, LA. Locke is the seemingly stereotypical inner city high school we hear horror stories about on 20/20 or Nightline. There were gang wars, horrendous failure and dropout rates and apathetic school systems running the show. Then a group of parents and educators decided to step in and try to do something to take their school back and possibly even help rescue a community.
That’s where Russo takes us. He spent a year in residence chronicling the goings-on at Locke and it’s (as expected) often not pretty, but it’s always honest. At it’s basic level, this book is the story of Locke, the Green Dot Charter Organization and the community of South Central. At it’s depth, this book is an excellent example of the work that it takes to turn around a school, the dedicated people that are necessary and the countless land mines they must navigate in order to do their jobs every single day. I love the way this work is described on the book jacket.
“What’s it like to try to turn around a broken school without stripping it beyond all recognition?… It’s a trickle of halting, incremental successes totally incompatible with the familiar Hollywood portrayal of instant results and individual heroes”
Indeed, there are no Jaime Escalantes here. In fact, the one staff member I loved, not just because of her UofMD roots, but because of her total dedication to kids and her seemingly low bullshit bar for everyone else, ends up mysteriously leaving the school like the Colts bolted Baltimore because of “something she did”.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments in this book where you want to stand up and cheer and people you want the world to know about and celebrate. It just means this is a realistic picture and those moments are fleeting and the people still deeply flawed.
The story is compelling, but I believe it’s Alexander Russo’s style that makes it a book you want to read, not just a tale you want to hear about. He takes non-fiction and makes it what I called earlier a heartbreaking, maddening journey that you’ll find you’re reluctant to stray from.
No matter where you stand on the issues surrounding school reform, everyone who cares about schools, kids or this country should read this book. It provides incredible perspective and maybe even a little bit of hope.
*I was provided a copy of Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors by the publisher for review.
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