From the downtown headquarters of his charter school company, Green Dot Public Schools, Steve Barr can observe exactly what he believes is problematic with education in Los Angeles. He guides a visitor to the terrace, deliberately overlooking the remarkable Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, and directs their attention west to the 29-story headquarters of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Mr. Barr, the founder of Green Dot Public Schools, is a supporter of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is preparing to oversee his own subset of schools next year. Green Dot currently operates 10 small high schools.
"That building represents everything that Green Dot schools are not, and what no schools should be," says Mr. Barr, a robust man standing at 6-foot-3 with disheveled gray hair and a fondness for untucked oxford shirts. "It’s large, bureaucratic, and unapproachable for students and their parents."
Mr. Barr, a former Democratic political organizer who has now established an empire of charter schools, has engaged in a contentious two-year campaign to persuade leaders in the nation’s second-largest school system to allow him to manage one or more struggling high schools. Thus far, the answer has been no. However, with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, his ally, set to assume control of the district on January 1st, Mr. Barr may finally have the opportunity he has been seeking to bring his reform methods to some of the city’s large, underperforming high schools. A new state law will grant Mr. Villaraigosa the power to directly control a cluster of three low-performing high schools, as well as the middle and elementary schools that feed into them.
"There are many aspects of Green Dot that we would like to emulate," said Ramon C. Cortines, the deputy mayor for education, youth, and families, who is leading Mr. Villaraigosa’s plans for the "mayor’s schools". "They have an efficient administration, a successful focus on 9th grade mathematics and literacy, and excellent teachers who are hired because they align with the schools’ mission. Additionally, they have shown positive results."
Mr. Barr, 47, is not an educator by trade. His passion for public schools stems from his upbringing in Cupertino, Calif., where his mother, a waitress, raised him and his younger brother. Mr. Barr, who excelled in sports and leadership during high school, graduated with average grades, attended junior college, and eventually graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara. His brother, however, dropped out of school at 16 and tragically died from a drug overdose at the age of 30.
"High school was an awful experience for him; it fails too many students," Mr. Barr stated. His desire for better outcomes led him to envision a map of Los Angeles dotted with small, exceptional schools, not just managed by him, but by anyone willing to contribute.
Mr. Barr joined the Teamsters labor union when he worked at United Parcel Service loading trucks during college. He now attributes that experience as one of the reasons he insists on having a unionized teaching staff, which is uncommon in charter schools. In the early 1990s, he gained recognition through his involvement with Rock the Vote, a national campaign he co-founded to increase youth voter turnout. This led to other roles in politics and progressive causes, while the memory of his brother’s untimely death and negative experiences in high school continued to haunt him. It was at this point that Mr. Barr had the idea to "create the great urban high school", coinciding with California’s developing charter school law and the growing acceptance of publicly funded but largely independent schools.
Now, six years after establishing his first school, Mr. Barr has become one of the most outspoken advocates for high school reform in the country. He received early support from the NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that backs charter school management organizations in various cities. Last spring, he was among several operators sought out by Louisiana education officials for guidance in establishing new, independent public schools in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.
Five brand new schools were established by Mr. Barr this autumn, despite being rejected by the district. These schools are located within Jefferson High’s attendance area and have about 140 freshmen enrolled at each site. Most of these freshmen would have otherwise attended Jefferson. In an agreement with district officials, two of these charter schools will be housed at a new middle school.
Green Dot, the organization behind these schools, now has a total of 10 schools. All of these schools are located in disadvantaged neighborhoods and primarily serve Latino and African-American students. They all operate based on the same set of principles called the "six tenets," which include small student enrollments, a college-preparatory curriculum, mandatory parental involvement, school-based decision making, more money in classrooms, and open schools for community use.
Mr. Barr, who resides in the Silver Lake neighborhood, spoke with a member of the Los Angeles Parents Union during a meeting last month. He is aiming to organize parents in middle and upper-middle-class areas, just as he has done in low-income parts of the city.
Each of the Green Dot schools have control over their hiring, budget, and curriculum. However, they must offer a curriculum that meets the minimum requirements for admission into the University of California system. Parents are also required to volunteer for at least 35 hours each year.
Last July, Green Dot parents, with support from Mr. Barr, established the Los Angeles Parents Union. This union has roughly 1,000 members and many of them supported Mayor Villaraigosa’s efforts to gain authority over the district. The union’s goal is to ensure that children receive education in small and successful schools.
Green Dot is unique among California charters because it employs a unionized teaching staff. According to Mr. Barr, it wouldn’t make sense to hire non-union teachers in a city where almost all teachers are unionized. Compared to Los Angeles Unified, Green Dot pays higher salaries, does not provide tenure, and its union is not affiliated with the United Teachers Los Angeles.
Since the opening of his first school, Animo Leadership Charter High School in 2000, Green Dot students have consistently achieved higher scores compared to students in other similar high schools in Los Angeles Unified and nearby districts. Last spring, Animo Inglewood Public Charter High School saw its first class of seniors graduate, with over 75% of them being accepted to a four-year college or university.
The Green Dot Charter Schools have received significant private investment due to their promising academic achievements. Since 2000, they have raised around $25 million to establish and maintain their schools.
Green Dot aims to go beyond just running schools and hopes to have a wider impact on Los Angeles. This has attracted private investment and the support of the Broad Foundation. Oscar De La Hoya Animo Charter High School, named after the famous Mexican-American boxer who is a generous supporter and board member of Green Dot, educates 520 Latino students.
At Green Dot schools, efforts have been made to ensure that students are prepared for college. When the senior class arrived as the founding class in 2002, over half of them were not reading at their grade level. Teachers implemented a literacy-intervention program called Read 180 and regularly assessed the progress of students. All seniors have now taken the SAT and are currently working on applications to at least three colleges or post-secondary institutions.
Students at Green Dot schools appreciate the smaller environment. Daisy Cuellar, who would have otherwise attended Garfield High School, said, "You don’t get lost here." She is currently applying to Harvard University and Wellesley College after visiting these campuses on a school trip last spring.
In California, schools are required to achieve a minimum score of 800 on the Academic Performance Index, which is measured on a scale of 200 to 1,000. If schools fall short of this requirement, they are given annual growth targets. These targets are compared to the base scores of the previous year to assess progress. The schools operated by Green Dot are either meeting or surpassing their targets. Negative numbers indicate a decline in scores. You can see the full chart by clicking on the image.
This information is sourced from the California Department of Education.
The teachers at Green Dot schools are well aware of their students’ performance as well. According to Ms. Terry, when test scores are released, it is easy to identify which teachers need to work on improving their students’ performance. There is no invisibility here.
At the newly established Animo Jackie Robinson Charter High School in South Los Angeles, Principal Lori Pawinski oversees a freshman class consisting of 144 students and 10 teachers. Many of these students arrived with reading skills below the 4th grade level. Ms. Pawinski, a former assistant principal at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles, explains the transformative impact the new school has had on one student, Precious Dennis, who admits to struggling with reading. The school’s commitment to supporting students like Precious gives her hope and motivates her to keep trying.
Mr. Barr, inspired by Mayor Villaraigosa’s upcoming role in managing the Los Angeles schools, expresses his desire to take on one of the district’s underperforming high schools, possibly Crenshaw High. However, a lawsuit has been filed by the school board and other parties challenging the mayor’s state legislation. Mr. Barr, who is not a proponent of charter schools, sees Green Dot charters as potential centers for research and development in the education system, particularly within the L.A. Unified District.
Funding for coverage on new schooling arrangements and efforts to improve classrooms is provided by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.