The Secret of His Success
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.”
Duffy stands by his words: “We know they have the ability to [skim the cream]. We just don’t have any way of verifying what they do.”
For all the colorful cussing, Barr’s triumph of personality is not that he makes people around him feel threatened — Duffy and other status quo types excluded. Rather, he makes people think he’s just like them.
Rosalyn Hardy, whose teenage sons, Brandon and Nicholas, attend Animo Inglewood and are gearing up for college, sees Barr as a father concerned that when his own 15-month-old daughter, Zofia, reaches high school, he’ll have to send her either to an expensive private school or to mediocre and troubled Marshall High School. Barr, asked one recent day to pose for a photo with Hardy at Green Dot’s holiday party at the Petersen Automotive Museum, does one better, opening his arms wide to hug the mother of two.
Teachers like Renee Klein, who joined Animo Venice after 25 years at Dorsey High School (“I never lost a student,” she says, “because they knew that I loved them”), see Barr as the lone bureaucrat who respects what “high-quality, professional” teachers know.
“When I heard about Steve Barr,” says Klein, “I thought, ‘This guy is like me.’ Everything he was saying was already in my head.”
Students know Barr as a once-horrible student raised by a single mother in a trailer home, but lucky enough to live in a neighborhood that fed into an excellent Silicon Valley public high school in the days when California’s schools ranked with the best in the country.
“We used to laugh at kids who went to private schools,” says Barr. A basketball player who knew how to work the system, Barr thrived in school. His younger brother did not thrive. “He was a pudgy kid, thick glasses,” Barr recalls. “He tried to join band, they gave him a tuba, and he just couldn’t fit in. He dropped out, got into drugs and crime, went into the Navy, where he barely learned to read.
“He’s one of the kids that [new LAUSD superintendent] Admiral [David] Brewer brags about having educated” during their military stints, Barr says.
Barr eventually became an influential political and community organizer, founding Rock the Vote and working on presidential campaigns. But his brother spiraled downward. In 1992, while in New Hampshire working on the Bill Clinton presidential campaign, Barr learned his little brother had died of a drug overdose. A year later, his mother died. Barr went into a “midlife, you know, what-the-fuck-happened” crisis.
“Part of my mending was to try to figure out what happened,” he says. “How does one kid from the same mother have so much and the other have so little? This was my way to honor him, to try and do what I could to fix the public schools.”
He took the name “Green Dot” from a Silicon Valley project he worked on, in which companies volunteered to wire local public schools for the Internet, tracking the completed projects with green dots on a map. “The idea was to turn a whole city into one big green dot,” he says.
Meanwhile, he stole his education model from well-regarded private schools: Raise teacher salaries, reduce class size and reshape the teachers’ union by replacing outmoded ideas like “tenure” with “just cause” — meaning teachers, currently nearly impossible to fire in public schools, can be fired if they don’t perform.
A lot of cash is flowing in to support his ideas, from foundations financed by Bill and Melinda Gates as well as Eli Broad. Broad’s $10.5 million gift this month will fund start-up costs of 10 new schools — a vote of confidence from the city’s reigning civic-minded billionaire. In time, Barr says, he hopes L.A. Unified School District and other struggling districts will imitate Green Dot, not merely sit by as Barr’s schools spread across a map of the city, creating one massive green swath. “That’s the idea,” he says.
Still, even with his new millions, he admits he faces considerable resistance, particularly from Duffy and others trying to protect the status quo.
Says Barr, in his classic no-nonsense style: “Where are these shitty teachers going to go? Where are these lifetime benefits going to go? What will happen to all of these groups protecting their interests and their jobs and their construction contracts? The political puzzle of this is really fascinating. But I have no doubt that within five years, you’re going to see our impact. And it’s going to be huge.”
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