School & District Management

Charter School Activist Gains New Influence in L.A.

By Lesli A. Maxwell — November 06, 2006 8 min read
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From the downtown headquarters of his charter school company, Green Dot Public Schools, Steve Barr can see exactly what he thinks is wrong with education in Los Angeles.

He steers a visitor to the terrace, skips the most striking piece of the landscape—the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall—and turns his finger and gaze west to the 29-story headquarters of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot Public Schools, is a supporter of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is poised to run his own subset of schools next year. Green Dot now operates 10 small high schools.

“That building sort of stands for everything that Green Dot schools aren’t, and what no schools should be,” says Mr. Barr, a burly, 6-foot-3 man with tousled gray hair and a preference for untucked oxford shirts. “It’s big, bureaucratic, and not approachable for students and their parents.”

Mr. Barr, a Democratic political organizer turned charter school mogul here, has waged a contentious, two-year campaign to persuade leaders in the nation’s second-largest school system to let him run one or more troubled high schools. The answer, so far, has been no.

But with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, an ally, set to assume some control of the district on Jan. 1, Mr. Barr may now get the opening he’s been seeking to bring his brand of reform to some of the city’s huge, struggling high schools. A new state law will vest Mr. Villaraigosa with the power to directly control a cluster of three low-performing high schools and the middle and elementary schools that send them students.

“There are a lot of things that we would want to copy from Green Dot,” said Ramon C. Cortines, the deputy mayor for education, youth, and families, who is heading up Mr. Villaraigosa’s plans for the “mayor’s schools.”

“They’ve got a lean administration, a successful focus on 9th grade math and literacy, and good teachers who are hired because they support the mission of the schools,” said Mr. Cortines, a former superintendent in San Francisco and New York City, and a former interim chief in Los Angeles. “And, they’ve got results.”

Mr. Barr, 47, is not an educator. He traces the passion he found for public schools to his upbringing in Cupertino, Calif., where his mother, a waitress, raised him and a younger brother. Mr. Barr, an athlete and student leader, graduated with average grades, went to junior college, and then graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara. His brother dropped out of school at 16, and by age 30, was dead from a drug overdose.

“High school was really awful for him; it fails too many kids,” Mr. Barr said.

His hope for better outcomes led to a vision of a Los Angeles map green-dotted with small, top-notch schools, run not just by him, but by anybody.

A Brash Advocate

Mr. Barr joined the Teamsters when he worked at United Parcel Service loading trucks in college. He now cites that experience as one reason he insists on having a unionized teaching corps—a rarity in charter schools.

In the early 1990s, he gained prominence with Rock the Vote, the national campaign he co-founded to boost youth voter turnout. Other jobs in politics and progressive causes followed, while his brother’s premature death and misery in high school kept nagging at him. Then, Mr. Barr said, he was struck with a notion to “create the great urban high school,” just as California’s charter school law was maturing and the publicly financed but largely autonomous schools were gaining acceptance.

Now, six years after founding his first school, Mr. Barr has become one of the brashest advocates for high school change in the country. He had early backing from the NewSchools Venture Fund, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that supports charter school management organizations in several cities. Last spring, he was among several operators sought out by Louisiana education officials for advice on starting new, independent public schools in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.

But his campaign to take over Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles last year probably best demonstrates the fervent style that is both admired and criticized.

For months, Mr. Barr talked with Los Angeles Unified leaders, including Superintendent Roy Romer, about collaborating to improve Jefferson, considered one of the city’s worst high schools. He also began meeting parents and community leaders who were frustrated by the school’s low test scores, high dropout rates, and tensions between Latino and black students. Many of them signed his petition to turn over Jefferson High to Green Dot—a drive that gathered thousands of signatures and culminated in a 1,000-person march last November that Mr. Barr led across downtown Los Angeles to district headquarters.

Leaders in the 727,000-student school district said his tactics were over the top.

“It was like if someone came to you and your family and said, ‘OK, we’ll take over your kids now,’ ” said Mike Lansing, a Los Angeles school board member whose district includes Jefferson. “We had already launched our initiative for small learning communities, and we weren’t just going to wipe that out because he demanded it.”

Five New Schools

Rebuffed by the district, Mr. Barr opened five more charters this fall—all within Jefferson High’s attendance area—and enrolled about 140 freshmen at each site, most of whom would have gone to Jefferson. District officials agreed to house two of the charters at a new middle school.

The move expanded Green Dot’s portfolio to 10 schools, all in poor neighborhoods and serving mostly Latino and some African-American students. All operate on the same principles, or “six tenets”: student enrollments no larger than 525, a college-preparatory curriculum, mandatory parental involvement, school-based decisionmaking, more money in the classroom, and schools open for community use.

Steve Barr speaks to a member of the Los Angeles Parents Union during a meeting late last month in the Silver Lake neighborhood, where he and his family live. Mr. Barr, who has organized parents in low-income parts of the city, wants to do the same in middle- and upper-middle-class areas.

The schools—which have the Spanish word ánimo, meaning spirit, in their names—control hiring, budget, and curriculum. Still, each must offer a course of study that meets the University of California system’s minimum subject-area requirements for freshman admission—a series of core courses and electives called the “A-G sequence.” And parents must put in at least 35 volunteer hours each year.

Last July, Green Dot parents helped Mr. Barr found the Los Angeles Parents Union, with some 1,000 members, many of whom supported Mayor Villaraigosa’s bid for authority over the district. “We are parents teaching parents to demand that their kids get small, successful schools,” said Shirley Ford, whose two sons attended a Green Dot charter in Inglewood.

A unionized teaching staff is unique among California charters. Politically, Mr. Barr said, it made no sense to hire nonunion teachers in a city where the profession is “nearly 100 percent unionized.” Green Dot, in general, pays higher salaries than Los Angeles Unified. Teachers can be fired for just cause, there is no tenure, and the union is not affiliated with the powerful United Teachers Los Angeles.

Outscoring Counterparts

Since Mr. Barr opened his first school, Animo Leadership Charter High School in the Lennox community in 2000, Green Dot students have consistently outscored their counterparts at similar high schools in Los Angeles Unified and neighboring districts.

Animo Inglewood Public Charter High School, his second school, graduated its first class of seniors last spring. More than 75 percent of the graduates were accepted to a four-year college or university, Mr. Barr said.

The promising academic record has drawn considerable private investment to the nonprofit Green Dot, which has raised roughly $25 million since 2000 to open its schools.

“Green Dot is about something much bigger than the schools they are running,” said Kevin Hall, the chief operating officer of the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation and a member of the Green Dot board of directors. “It’s not enough for Steve and his team to say, ‘Hey, we’ll impact the lives of the students just in our schools.’ They want to be, and have already been, a catalyst for wider change in Los Angeles.”

Oscar De La Hoya Animo Charter High School—named for the famed Mexican-American boxer, who is a generous supporter and a Green Dot board member—educates 520 Latino students in a rented space downtown. Most live in the largely immigrant communities of East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights.

Applying to College

When the now-senior class arrived to be the founding class in 2002, more than half its members were not reading at grade level, said Harris Luu, the assistant principal. Teachers chose Read 180, the literacy-intervention program used at other Green Dot schools. Freshmen were regularly assessed for their progress on reading, and every teacher, regardless of subject, was briefed.

“We all studied the results and could make adjustments to how we taught those students,” Mr. Luu said.

Four years later, all seniors have taken the SAT and are working on applications to at least three colleges or other postsecondary institutions, said Kris Terry, the principal.

Daisy Cuellar, 17, would have gone to the 4,800-student Garfield High School in East Los Angeles.

“You don’t get lost here,” said Ms. Cuellar, who is applying to Harvard University and Wellesley College after a school trip to the campuses last spring.

Achievement in Green Dot and Nearby Public Schools

Under its Academic Performance Index, California requires schools to score 800 on a scale of 200 to 1,000. Schools that fall short are assigned annual growth targets. Growth scores are compared against base scores from the previous year to measure progress. Green Dot’s schools are either meeting or exceeding their targets. Negative numbers mean scores are declining.

*Click image to see the full chart.


SOURCE: California Department of Education

Teachers don’t get lost, either, said Ms. Terry.

“When our test scores come out, and there are only one or two teachers teaching a subject at every grade level, then we know exactly who we need to work with,” she said. “There’s no invisibility here.”

At the new Animo Jackie Robinson Charter High School in South Los Angeles, Principal Lori Pawinski oversees a freshman class of 144 students and 10 teachers, several of them rookies.

Many students arrived in September reading at a 4th grade level or lower, said Ms. Pawinski, a former assistant principal at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles.

One of them, Precious Dennis, 14, explains that the school has already changed her.

“I don’t really know how to read,” she said, “but they tell me, ‘If you stick with us, we’ll stick with you.’ ”

Mr. Barr, buoyed by Mayor Villaraigosa’s upcoming management role in the Los Angeles schools, said he would try again to take on one of the district’s low-performing high schools—maybe, he said, Crenshaw High. The school board, however, and other parties, have filed a lawsuit challenging the Democratic mayor’s state legislation.

“Look, I am not part of the cult; I don’t think charters are the answer for urban public education,” said Mr. Barr, who still wears a green plastic bracelet made last year with the slogan “Transform Jefferson.”

“What I do think Green Dot charters are doing and should continue to do,” he said, “is be the best centers of [research and development] for the districts, and for L.A. Unified especially.”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2006 edition of Education Week as Charter School Activist Gains New Influence in L.A.


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