Private Takeover of L.A. Schools Gets Results
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
We have a story now about a Californian on a rescue mission. He is 48 years old. He has been a TV actor, and he's also been a lot of other things. Foster child, a promising athlete, author, and political operative for several presidential campaigns. But nothing has consumed Steve Barr like his latest role, the would-be savior of the second largest school system in the nation, the Los Angeles Unified School District.
NPR's Claudio Sanchez introduces us to Steve Barr.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: When Steve Barr saunters into a Los Angeles public high school these days, teachers see more than his 6-foot-5, 260-pound frame. Some see public enemy number one.
Mr. ELIJAH WOODSON (Teacher, Locke High School): We're not friends, Steve.
Mr. STEVE BARR (Founder, Green Dot Public Schools): What's that?
Mr. WOODSON: We're not friends.
Mr. BARR: I just asked what that was.
Mr. WOODSON: I'm just telling you.
Mr. BARR: I know we're not friends, Woodson. I know we're not friends.
SANCHEZ: Today, for example, Barr runs into Elijah Woodson, a veteran teacher at Locke High School, where half the faculty recently voted to turn this school over to Barr's charter school operation, Green Dot. Woodson's whole body shakes as he points angrily at a smiling Barr a few feet away.
Mr. WOODSON: There's the man who took the school we're in.
SANCHEZ: Wait a minute. You - he's who's enemy?
Mr. WOODSON: What do you - who are you?
SANCHEZ: I'm a reporter. I'm just following him around.
Mr. WOODSON: I've been here 21 years. And so that bamboozle this is (unintelligible). This is a (unintelligible) neighborhood, so they can't go to Jordan, they can't go to Washington, they can't go to Freemont.
SANCHEZ: But why doesn't they just come back here?
Mr. WOODSON: They don't want to go to Green Dot. They don't want to wear uniform. This is not a private school. This is a public school, not prioritized - what do you call it, he's making it private. It's just another way of - that's his thing, he's a moneymaker, he's here to make money not (unintelligible) the school. So he's the great, white hope. He's got our allowances, so ask him.
SANCHEZ: As far as Woodson's concerned, Barr is going to skim off a tidy profit from the millions of dollars he's getting in public funds to restructure Locke High and other struggling schools, unless somebody stops him. Barr rebels in being the outsider, the antagonist.
Mr. BARR: Funny you have to be a battering ram. And you have to also acknowledge that people are so beaten down and so - pardon me (unintelligible), we need more people being outraged here.
SANCHEZ: It's easy to be outraged in Los Angeles. All you have to do is look at the latest data - 309 chronically failing schools and a teacher turnover rate of almost 60 percent a year, mostly in high schools. Only a third of the city's 710,000 students can read at grade level.
We've gone from a model school system to a broken school system, says Barr.
Mr. BARR: So my job is to find a new model that is so clearly different and successful. And then create demand around the city that all public schools look like that.
SANCHEZ: That new model, says Barr, is Green Dot. Now in its seventh year, it runs 12 charter high schools of no more than 500 students each, with a college preparatory curriculum, a budget controlled by the school, and principals with the power to hire and fire.
Mr. BARR: That's a vision. That's like a moon shot.
SANCHEZ: To make sure Green Dot parents and teachers buy into his vision. Barr has created his own parents' organization and a teachers' union. The result thus far: small, orderly, rigorous schools in L.A.'s toughest neighborhoods, graduating 90 percent of their students and sending almost as many to college.
Mr. BARR: We've proven that kids can learn.
SANCHEZ: Billionaires like Eli Broad and Bill and Melinda Gates have been so impressed they've given Barr over $18 million. So with friends with deep pockets and a zeal for shaking up LAUSD, the Los Angeles Unified School District, Steve Barr seems unstoppable.
Ms. EVELYN BARRERO(ph) (Volunteer): (Spanish spoken)
SANCHEZ: Evelyn Barrero, a tiny olive-skinned woman with graying black hair who volunteers at one of Barr's charter schools, says he understands that a child learns best when he's loved and nurtured like a seedling. She says parents trust Barr because he's been truthful and because he grew up poor in a trailer park just outside San Jose, California. Abandoned by his father, raised by a single mom who had to put him and his brother in foster care when the family hit rock bottom.
Mr. BARR: You know, I grew up, my mom never made more than a thousand dollars a month. And we never had health care. There's that point in your life where you see your parents humiliated that it really has an impact on you. And I saw my mom humiliated often.
SANCHEZ: That's what dysfunctional schools often do to poor families, says Barr. Talk down to them. Humiliate them. Sitting at a kitchen table in his modest ranch-style home on a hill overlooking download L.A., Barr says a good public school education made all the difference in his life. But he's also been fortunate. After graduating from U.C. Santa Barbara with a political science degree, Barr worked as an events man for the 1984 Olympic torch runners then wrote a book about it titled, "The Flame: An Unlikely Patriot Finds a Country to Love."
Barr's upbeat journal sold pretty well. It gave him the freedom to work on all kinds of projects an a couple of failed presidential campaigns. Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, and finally somebody who actually won, Bill Clinton. Looking back, Barr says, he was a liberal searching for his political soul and a purpose in life.
Mr. BARR: I had a pretty good midlife crisis working. I just buried a brother and a mom. And I tried and figured out what to do with my life. But I wanted to be bold. And I didn't have a date, I didn't have a wife, I didn't have a mortgage. And so when I started Green Dot, I had about $100,000 in the bank.
SANCHEZ: That was 1999. Today, Green Dot operates out of the second floor of the World Trade Center in downtown L.A. where Barr employs 25 people, half are assigned to Green Dot schools or, as Barr puts it, one bureaucrat per school. We're not just creating better schools for kids who have been neglected, says Barr, his eyes widening, we're a political movement. Yeah. A movement that can be nasty and divisive says Julie Korenstein, his harshest critic on the city school board. Korenstein agrees with teachers at Locke High, for example, who believe that deep down, Barr would like to privatize public education to make some money.
Ms. JULIE KORENSTEIN (School Board Member, LAUSD): I'm sure he would not waste his time doing this if he couldn't make a good living. I don't think that he's malicious at all, but I think it's a really good business.
SANCHEZ: Others say Barr is well-intentioned, but he has trashed the city school system unfairly.
Mr. ROY ROMER (Former Colorado Governor): Let me tell you, I was at that district six and a half years.
SANCHEZ: Roy Romer, a former governor of Colorado, was the superintendent of schools when Barr started badmouthing district administrators, including dedicated people who were turning schools around, says Romer.
Mr. ROMER: That district is serving a great, great function. It needs criticism, it doesn't been to have somebody trying to put a bomb in the middle of it.
SANCHEZ: Barr, though, is undeterred. At this gathering of like-minded school reformers from across the country hosted at a ritzy hotel in Marina Del Rey by an organization called The NewSchools Venture Fund, Barr addresses the session titled, "How to Inspire Evangelists."
SANCHEZ: Where are the evangelists?
Unidentified Woman: Right here. The evangelists are right here.
SANCHEZ: Barr's sermon is simple. Green Dot has become a political force because it has connected people's lives to something meaningful. Good schools -that's powerful, says Barr.
Mr. BARR: Especially if you're trying to stir and lead, as we are in Los Angeles, a parent revolt and now match it with a teacher revolt.
SANCHEZ: And there's no reason it won't spread to other cities, says Barr, his eyes widening. Next fall, he's opening a Green Dot school in the south Bronx with the blessings of New York's United Federation of Teachers. The union in Chicago is interested, too. After that, says Barr, maybe New Orleans.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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