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March 04, 2013 4 min read
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| NEWS | Charters & Choice

Steve Barr’s Quest to Save A New Orleans High School

Steve Barr, the colorful founder of unionized charter schools who shook up the Los Angeles Unified School District several years ago with his efforts to both compete and cooperate with the district to fix some of its worst schools, is now at work in New Orleans.

Barr’s Future Is Now Schools—which he founded after leaving the Los Angeles-focused Green Dot schools network—is midway through the first year of a rescue effort to save one of New Orleans’ toughest high schools both pre- and post-Katrina: John McDonogh in the city’s Treme neighborhood.

I visited this school a handful of times during the first 18 months it was open following the hurricane. It was a deeply troubled place that I remember most for its fortification: metal detectors at every entrance and an abundance of security guards.

In the five years since I reported at John Mac, the school churned through numerous principals, was barely mustering attendance of 50 kids a day, and was nearly shut down by the Recovery School District.

In 2007, while still running Green Dot, Barr won a knock-down, drag-out fight to win control over the similarly troubled Locke High School in the Watts community of Los Angeles by organizing teachers to support a conversion to a charter school. Green Dot began its overhaul of Locke in 2008, and while there have been some academic gains, along with other notable progress on safety and school culture, the turnaround effort there remains a work in progress. Barr left Green Dot in 2009.

To lead the John Mac revival, Barr said, he did a national search before hiring Principal Marvin Thompson, who had been working in North Carolina. Never one to shrink from the media spotlight, Barr also agreed to let television cameras closely document the first year at John Mac after getting the blessing from Thompson and the high school’s faculty.

The first two episodes of “Blackboard Wars” recently aired on own, Oprah Winfrey’s cable channel. The snippets I’ve watched are pretty grim—violence and post-traumatic-stress issues are prominent—and don’t offer much hope for an about-face in the first year.

Many of John Mac’s students, Barr said, are overage and way behind in high school credits, and a not-insignificant number of them have been put out of the city’s numerous other charter schools.

“This first year is literally about getting the kids to even come to school,” he said. “It’s about changing the culture.”

While that quite-public undertaking unfolds in New Orleans, Barr is working in a more behind-the-scenes manner in Los Angeles (not his usual modus operandi) to get approval for “pilot schools"that he supports in the district. The pilot schools would have much of the same autonomy as charters, but would still be in-district schools (so no drain on lausd enrollment) that operate with a collective bargaining agreement, albeit a “thin contract.”

Barr now has a strong ally in Superintendent John Deasy. This relationship has put Barr inside the district in a way that he hasn’t been accustomed to.

His first pilot, called the Silver Lake Studio School, has been given the green light by the Los Angeles school board, Barr told me. Another pilot, for Venice, is still moving through the district’s approval process.

“I keep telling these guys, you can either do this or you are going to see charters eating up the district schools,” he said.

—Lesli A. Maxwell

| NEWS | District Dossier

Superintendent of the Year Focuses on Tech, Dropouts

Mark A. Edwards, the superintendent of the 5,600-student Mooresville Graded School District in North Carolina, is the American Association of School Administrators’ superintendent of the year. The award was announced in Los Angeles last month.

Mooresville’s 1-to-1 laptop program has been held up as a model for school districts looking to use technology effectively in schools.

The district has seen its graduation rate increase from 73 percent in 2007, when Edwards arrived, to 90 percent last year.

Wanda Cook-Robinson, the superintendent of the Southfield, Mich., public schools; C.J. Huff, the superintendent of the Joplin, Mo., schools; and Maryalice Russell, the superintendent of the McMinnville, Ore., school district, were this year’s other finalists.

—Jaclyn Zubrzycki

| NEWS | State EdWatch

W.Va. Teachers Give an ‘F’ To Governor’s Proposal

When former West Virginia Superintendent Jorea Marple was fired by the state board of education late last year, the board said one motivation was the need for a significant change in direction for K-12 education in the state.

With a lengthy bill introduced in the state legislature last week, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, has shown exactly how he wants “education reform” in his state to proceed, at least initially. And the bill, which has a focus on early education and teacher qualifications, has been panned by teachers.

The highlights of the plan include expanding preschool to all-day programs; allowing members of Teach For America to fill classroom positions in “critical-need areas"; and strengthening teacher education in reading.

In addition, Tomblin’s plan would require 180 days of instruction in public schools, yet at the same time provide “flexibility” for school calendars to meet that requirement. Tomblin also wants to create a commission that would evaluate the structure of local school boards.

So, how have the teachers’ unions reacted in West Virginia? In a word, negatively. They don’t like the idea of increasing teacher-preparation requirements, yet at the same time allowing tfamembers to fill classroom positions. In addition, they say the plan doesn’t meet its promise to reduce bureaucracy.

—Andrew Ujifusa

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2013 edition of Education Week as Blogs of the Week


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