By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
IT IS FRIDAY AFTERNOON, the day after billionaire Eli Broad’s foundation announced it would invest $10.5 million in Steve Barr’s grand experiment to remake public education in Los Angeles, and Barr, in blue Dodger cap and denim shirt, sits on the porch of his sylvan Silver Lake home to “take the rest of the day off.” He says this several times, as if to remind himself, and has the props to prove it: On a table in the shade of a towering redwood, an aromatic cigar burns to a stub in the ashtray, and an unfinished Corona turns warm in the sun.
Still, his blinking laptop periodically announces new mail, and his cell phone beeps alerts. A Christmas party for his group of charter schools begins in just a few hours, and a journalist whom Barr has agreed to meet wants answers to the question on so many minds: What has Barr done to deserve $10.5 million of Broad’s money, none of which will go to Los Angeles Unified School District?
Barr answers without the slightest phony impulse toward humility: “On graduation rates, on test scores, on teacher pay — on just about anything you associate with school reform — we have kicked the district’s butt. There’s nobody in America who has taken the same kind of kids in the same kinds of areas and the same dollars and narrowed the achievement gap like we have.
“Eli Broad doesn’t write a check if we are marginally better,” Barr concludes. “People don’t write editorials about us because we’re not successful.” In fact, he says, “The only reason anybody has to listen to my big mouth is because of our success. And if our success wanes, all the defenders of the status quo will celebrate.”
It’s been six years since the 47-year-old Barr launched his personal variant on the charter-school formula, Green Dot Public Schools, then lured 500 kids (and their supportive parents) away from nearby — and academically disastrous — Lennox High School in Boyle Heights. To the consternation of L.A. Unified officials, Barr created Animo Leadership Charter High School with the aim of showing what he could do with $1,200 less per student than L.A. Unified and most big-city districts in California spend. His goal was to accomplish what California schools have failed to achieve for nearly 30 years: turn functionally illiterate and grossly undereducated urban freshmen into literate, math-competent, college-ready graduates who can compete with the graduates of rich-kid Harvard-Westlake.
The “Animo” used in the title of his schools means everything from “spirit” to “desire” in Spanish. It also means “ ‘get off your ass’ in Spanish surfer speak,” says Barr. “So some of our kids now say they go to, for example, Get Off Your Ass Inglewood School.”
So far, early returns from his 10 schools show a graduation rate double that of LAUSD’s sad results. While the data is too new to be earth-shatteringly conclusive, he is nevertheless giving the keepers of public education’s keys cause to question the city’s own, staggering, 40 percent dropout rate among freshmen and sophomores.
His sometimes fast-and-loose rhetoric — and his claims that he will produce test scores in tough neighborhoods that rival the scores in middle-class Culver City and Santa Monica schools — has won him some prominent detractors. Chief among them is A.J. Duffy, president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, who dismisses Barr as “a good salesman,” and complains that Green Dot charter schools drain state money from public schools.
Duffy has claimed that Barr selectively handpicks only four students out of every 10 in the neighborhoods where he opens a new school. That rankles Barr more than any other attack upon him, because, he says, he and the “20 bureaucrats who oversee 10 schools” work to ensure that the student body accurately reflects the student population in each neighborhood.
“I don’t know what other charter schools do,” Barr says. “But when we did our first school in Boyle Heights, we went after every eighth-grade family that fed into Roosevelt High. I went to Father Greg [Boyle] and I said, ‘I’m going to have 140 slots for the founding of this school, for the freshman class of this school, and I’m going to give you 50 slots.’ ”
Boyle, according to Barr, doesn’t pick the top kids, but instead sends him the children with learning problems or obstacles: “They’re not the Phi Beta Kappas. They’re not the kids in the AP [Advanced Placement] program . . . The idea is you don’t want to be skimming off the cream; you want to have the same exact kids with the same exact issues as the [public] schools that you’re trying to reform. We really spent a lot of time on that. And for Duffy to not know our model and comment —”
So is Duffy’s fear off base that Barr might be creaming the top of the student population, selecting only the most capable? “It’s bullshit,” says Barr. “It’s like me saying, ‘Duffy’s a pig fucker.’ Have I seen him fuck a pig? Do I have photos? No. So I can’t say it. He should check these things out before he says them.”