Teenagers’ Graduation Proves Activist’s Vision

Times Staff Writer

Four years ago, Marco Garcia took a chance on an experimental new high school with no clubs and no sports teams. But it promised a safe environment, individual attention and a college-prep curriculum, and that was more than enough for Marco and his family.

He became part of the inaugural freshman class of Animo Leadership Charter High School near Lennox, a mainly low-income, unincorporated community east of Los Angeles International Airport made up largely of Latino immigrants.

“One of my cousins went to Leuzinger and the other went to Hawthorne and they both dropped out,” Marco said of two of the public high schools in the area. “I saw that and I knew I didn’t want it to happen to me.”

Taking over a Mexican restaurant near Animo’s rented campus for their senior breakfast this week, Marco and his classmates celebrated their successes.


Among them: Everybody is going to college or trade or technical school after graduation today. Almost 60% are going to four-year schools -- including UC Berkeley, UCLA, Pomona College, Wellesley College, Mills College, Loyola Marymount University and USC -- some on full scholarships. Marco was accepted at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

Chatting animatedly with the seniors as they signed each other’s yearbooks -- the school’s first hardcover, color edition -- was the tall, middle-aged man who was the driving force behind Animo and its several spinoff schools. Through all his joking, he admitted later, he was trying hard “not to lose it” as graduation day neared.

Steve Barr, 44, has no formal background in education, but he parlayed his considerable political savvy and enviable connections into the founding of Green Dot Public Schools, the Inglewood-based nonprofit launching pad for his education improvement ideas.

Barr’s vision was to open small charter schools in crowded, urban neighborhoods whose schools are plagued by high dropout rates and low achievement. And he wanted to show that it could be done for the same -- or less -- funding given to public schools.

Associates call him brilliant, driven, impatient, optimistic and caring -- qualities that his casual dress and easy conversation can mask.

“He’s a lunatic, but in a good way,” said Caprice Young, former president of the Los Angeles Board of Education, who now heads the California Assn. of Charter Schools.

“He’s a real activist and his passion for education is an outgrowth of his political belief that every kid has a right to a chance to succeed,” Young said.

Barr’s inspiration, he says, grew from a lunch with former Gov. Pat Brown that he attended as a California Democratic Party fundraiser in 1989.


“This was a guy who changed hundreds of thousands of lives” by presiding over the rapid growth of the state’s two university systems, Barr said in his quick-paced manner of speaking. “It had an impact on me, and it got me started thinking about a legacy through education.”

After graduating from the Bay Area’s Cupertino High School in 1977, Barr attended community college before graduating from UC Santa Barbara and working in political and social service jobs. In 1990 he co-founded Rock the Vote, a campaign that markedly increased the number of young voters.

When California authorized the establishment of charter schools in 1992, Barr soon found another avenue for his activism.

Charter schools are tax-funded, public campuses that are allowed to operate free of many education code regulations with the expectation that their innovations will improve student achievement. California has about 500 charter schools.


Friendly with some leaders in the charter school movement, including Silicon Valley entrepreneur Reed Hastings, now a member of the state Board of Education, Barr began planning his own charters in the Los Angeles area.

Using his life savings of about $100,000, Barr founded Green Dot in 1999. Collaborating with nearby Loyola Marymount University and the Lennox School District, he opened Animo (Spanish for “spirit” or “vigor”) in the fall of 2000.

The school leases space from the University of West Los Angeles law school; Barr hopes to buy the building or another campus nearby. He drew no salary in the beginning but, starting a year and half ago, began earning $130,000 a year.

School officials in Lennox, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade district, sponsored the charter because they wanted an alternative for their students, well over half of whom dropped out of high schools in the Centinela Valley Union district.


Despite opposition from the Inglewood Unified School District, which was starting an honors high school, Barr opened his second charter, Animo Inglewood High School, with state approval in 2002.

Both Animos outperform regular public schools in their area. On the 2003 California Academic Performance Index, for example, Animo Leadership earned 649 out of a possible 1,000 points and received a statewide ranking of 5, placing it in the middle tier of all the state’s high schools. By contrast, Leuzinger High School scored 518 with a ranking of 1, putting it among the bottom schools in the state. Hawthorne High scored 528, also ranking in the bottom. Lawndale High, scoring 589, earned a 3 ranking.

Each class of 140 students at the Green Dot schools was chosen by lottery from twice as many applicants, not by academic achievement or other measures. However, officials acknowledge that they are likely to attract the more motivated families and students.

Ninety-eight percent of Animo Leadership students are Latinos, and 94% qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, a common indicator of low family income.


“I’m very pleased with the progress he is making with these young people,” said Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt F. Dorn, a former Juvenile Court judge who helped Barr make important contacts in the city. “This is a school that is headed in the right direction and provides an alternative for our parents.”

Inglewood school officials could not be reached for comment.

California Education Secretary Richard Riordan, who pushed for school reform during his tenure as mayor of Los Angeles, said he had at first been a bit skeptical of Barr and what he saw as a tendency toward self-promotion. But the schools’ performance soon won him over.

“He’s done a lot and he’s created some great schools” in some of the poorest areas of the state, Riordan said. “I think Steve’s sensational.”


Both Animo campuses offer small classes and course work that follows UC entrance requirements. Students use laptop computers for research, leading Barr to say that his are the only successful schools in the state with no library. Parents are required to help out at the schools and are encouraged to participate in decision-making.

Teachers are young -- mostly under 30 -- and relatively inexperienced; fewer than half have full credentials. But they enthusiastically put in long hours, connect well with their students and have a lot of say in curriculum and how the school is run.

They have a union affiliated with the California Teachers Assn. Barr says they are paid 10% more than their counterparts in Los Angeles Unified. David Tokofsky, a seasoned social studies teacher before being elected to the Los Angeles Board of Education, works part time for Green Dot as a teacher coach.

“I love teaching and I love the personal connections,” said Erica Rosales, who grew up on Los Angeles’ Eastside and joined the then-new Animo Leadership right out of UCLA’s teacher education program.


“We all want to make a difference in the communities in which we work,” said Rosales, who teaches government, economics and leadership classes.

Barr opened a third school -- named after its benefactor and boxing great Oscar de la Hoya -- in Boyle Heights last year, his first within L.A. Unified.

He recently won school board approval for two more campuses, to open late this summer in the downtown area and in Venice.

“That will be the first school in a middle-class area,” Barr said of the Venice site, “and it will be a real test -- to see if my white friends on the Westside will want to send their kids there instead of private schools.”


“I’m a fan,” Roberta Benjamin, head of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s charter schools division, said of Barr and Oscar de la Hoya Animo, where she found students “performing really rigorous tasks.”

“If they continue to educate kids in our district like they’ve begun to do, we will only see benefits for our future,” Benjamin said.

Barr has, however, backed off his original intent to open 100 schools in a decade. He plans to stop and evaluate the program after the next two are launched.

Not only the future, but also the past, was on the minds of the Lennox seniors as they prepared for graduation -- a milestone that more than half their parents never reached.


“I’m excited and proud; as the first class, we made a lot of things possible,” said Ernesto Polanco, who plans to study business at UC Santa Cruz.

Students formed their own clubs, organized sports teams and helped decide other features of the fledgling school. President Clinton and other dignitaries visited them.

Of the 140 who started as freshmen, 125 remained for graduation, including a couple of students who left for other schools, then came back. Of the missing 15, one student dropped out; the others moved away or transferred.

“We have very high expectations for our students, but there is always a scaffolding of support to help meet them,” said Principal Mara Simmons.


Victor Garcia, who will study engineering at Boston University this fall, said his parents chose Animo because they thought the other schools weren’t safe, but he was happy for the college-prep academics.

“I’m excited,” Victor said, polishing off the last of his breakfast. “I can’t wait for college.”