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Give him an A for ambition

Times Staff Writer

STEVE Barr may not be a household name, but he is doing more these days to shake up public education in Los Angeles than anyone but Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Barr is pushy, ambitious and determined to draw attention to his 10 charter high schools, publicly financed campuses that, in exchange for boosting student achievement, are given broad freedom to design their curriculum and to avoid many other restrictions set by school districts.

He believes they should be the model for transforming the nation’s second-largest school district, saving a couple hundred thousand minority students and enticing middle-class families back to city schools along the way.

Critics counter that Barr’s early success is unsustainable and exaggerated. Barr, they say, is a politician in educator’s clothing.

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They might not be all wrong: Barr wants to be mayor too.

“My mission is systemic change,” Barr said. “I don’t want to be building charter school No. 49.”

If there is a center to the fast-expanding charter universe, it is the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is home to more charters than any other district in the country. And in the midst of it all is the 47-year-old Barr, who in 1999 founded Green Dot Public Schools.

It would be easy to dismiss Barr as just a brash salesman, except that people keep listening to him. Philanthropist Eli Broad recently gave Green Dot $10.5 million to help the $34-million-a-year operation triple in size. (By 2010, Barr says, he can have one of every 10 high school students in the district enrolled in Green Dot.) About 1,000 parents, meanwhile, have joined a parents group he created to push his reform ideas in schools from Venice to East L.A. And Villaraigosa is using Green Dot ideas as part of his push to overhaul city schools.

“Steve Barr is a believer that one person can change the world,” Villaraigosa said. “He is absolutely passionate about transforming our schools, and has put in the blood, sweat and tears to make it happen.”

Barr has never worked as a principal or a teacher. Indeed, compared to the professional educators who typically start charter schools, he doesn’t know much about teaching kids. Nevertheless, Green Dot high schools have posted some promising early results.

Located in some of the region’s toughest, poorest Latino and black neighborhoods, Barr’s schools are rooted in a common-sense assumption: All students can learn if they are held to high expectations and taught by capable, empowered teachers in small schools.

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TO understand how Barr got into the business of educating kids, you have to know the pain and guilt he feels about his dead brother, Michael.

The brothers lived a meager and unsettled childhood. Their father left shortly after Michael was born and Steve was 2. Their mother, who worked odd jobs and as an Army dental assistant, raised the boys herself. They moved frequently, landing in such places as Fond du Lac, Wis., and Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo. For a year, when Steve was 5, his mother put the boys in foster care.

“My mom was a tough lady but always on the borderline of cracking up because it was just overwhelming,” Barr said. “We had the basics, but for a few years there it was really tough.... We were never incredibly hungry, but I was not unfamiliar with it.”

Before Barr started high school, the family moved to California and Barr’s mother made a decision that he credits with changing his life. After renting a one-bedroom apartment in San Jose, she moved the family again, this time just a few blocks into neighboring Cupertino, so her boys could attend the town’s high-performing high school.

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At Cupertino High, Barr came into his own. He was an average student but a star basketball player. He fell in easily with the jocks and the privileged kids of Hewlett-Packard engineers.

His brother, however, foundered. A chubby, awkward kid with ill-fitting glasses, Michael struggled to make friends. While Barr played it straight (“I didn’t drink a beer until senior year and still have never done a drug stronger than tequila”), Michael got heavily into drugs.

Their lives diverged dramatically. Steve went on to a local community college and later transferred to UC Santa Barbara. Michael dropped out of high school at 16. After he was busted for drug possession, a judge essentially gave him a choice between jail and the Navy, Barr said. Michael enlisted, becoming a ship’s cook.

Years later, shortly after leaving the Navy, Michael was hit by a flower truck that had run a light. One of his legs was crushed, and in the years that followed, he underwent dozens of operations in a futile effort to ease the pain. In 1992, he died of an overdose of alcohol and painkillers.

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His death had a profound effect on Barr, who sees his brother’s overdose as the coda to a sad life that began its downward spiral in high school. Despite being awash in funding and resources, the Cupertino campus was, Barr recalls, a segregated place. Only a select slice of students was rigorously prepared for college. Others received little attention and were dispatched into the low-skill jobs of California’s booming manufacturing economy.

At a recent Green Dot staff retreat, Barr held aloft a photo of his brother in his Navy uniform.

“All this kid needed, all he really needed, was for someone to see what a great kid he was,” he said, his voiced choked with emotion. “When I see our kids walking the halls today, I think about my brother and I see it’s just so simple. These kids are getting attention. My mending has been Green Dot.”

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AFTER graduating from college, Barr spent years immersed in politics, working on presidential campaigns and for the California Democratic Party. A $150,000 advance gave him the time to write a book about his travels as part of the team that organized the 1984 Olympic torch relay.

In 1990, he helped music mogul Jeff Ayeroff start Rock the Vote, an MTV-driven campaign aimed at involving young people in the political process. (He still counts several rap and rock stars as friends.) Then in the mid-1990s, Barr tried his hand at television, as an on-air reporter on a news magazine program called “The Crusaders.”

Around that time, Barr’s mother died of lung cancer. The death jolted him, he said, into pursuing something more fulfilling.

He had become involved with efforts to pass the state’s charter school law. In California’s burgeoning charter movement, Barr saw a way to pursue his political ambition and purge his guilt over his brother.

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Leaving behind a girlfriend in the Bay Area, the 39-year-old bachelor and his Labrador moved into a cheap studio apartment in Venice before Christmas 1999.

Borrowing liberally from the one start-up charter high school that existed in California and elite private schools in the city for ideas, Barr joined the first wave of charter operators in Los Angeles.

He pulled caffeine-infused all-nighters writing his plan for his first school. When the coffee ran out, he blasted Rage Against the Machine -- his favorite band -- until the police came with complaints.

“He has this naive sense that he can do anything he wants to, and he has the drive to do it,” said James Brown, a friend who is creative director at an advertising agency.

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The first Green Dot school opened eight months later.

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ALL Green Dot schools carry the name Animo, a Spanish word that, roughly translated, means vigor or spirit. Ninety-eight percent of the 3,066 students enrolled in Green Dot’s schools are either Latino or black. More than one-third of them arrive struggling to speak English and 84% are poor enough for subsidized meals at school. Barr said he has on three occasions given $3,000 of the group’s money to parents to help them bury students killed by gang gunfire.

Despite the challenges, Green Dot campuses are showing encouraging signs. Compared with traditional public schools with similar demographics, Green Dot schools score either at or near the top of the state’s ranking system. At the two Green Dot campuses opened long enough to have a graduating class, nearly eight of 10 students received diplomas on time, according to state statistics. Most have gone on to college, Green Dot says. The schools have waiting lists of several hundred students.

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Still, difficulties persist. Math and science scores have languished, with many students scoring “below basic” or “far below basic” on state exams. Barr only this year hired a team of curriculum experts.

“He’s an entrepreneur, and he’s had some success in selling his product, but I don’t trust the product,” said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, the district’s teachers union, and a strident critic of charters.

Saying Barr takes “bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, idealistic people and works them to death,” Duffy chalks up the success of Green Dot and other charters to what he says are the excessive workloads teachers are expected to carry. Without the protections and strict work rules spelled out in UTLA’s contract, Duffy says, charter schools are not sustainable.

Barr dismisses the claims, pointing out that most of the teachers he hires away from L.A. Unified embrace the expectations and freedom they are afforded. Green Dot teachers, he adds, have their own union.

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Green Dot is highly decentralized, allowing teachers and principals broad freedom over budgets and academics. They must follow a set of tenets that require schools to stay open late and have small classes, encourage parental involvement and offer college-prep course loads for every student.

Other charter schools in Los Angeles are built on similar foundations, and several have matched or outpaced Green Dot’s success. But although most charter operators view themselves as small individual pieces of a growing reform movement, Barr’s vision is something altogether more expansive. He won’t be satisfied until the entire Los Angeles Unified district is transformed in the Green Dot image.

To that end, he has aggressively asserted himself in the city’s high-stakes debate over school reform.

Frustrated that candidates in the 2005 race for mayor were not talking enough about education, Barr decided to force the issue, forming a group called the Small Schools Alliance.

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With large contributions from former Mayor Richard Riordan, Broad and others, the group launched a campaign that called on candidates to sign a contract that championed Green Dot-style reforms for all public schools.

Then-Mayor James K. Hahn, desperate to make up ground on Villaraigosa, signed on and pushed Villaraigosa to do the same. Villaraigosa was slow to commit but since has made education reform the cornerstone of his administration.

Around the same time, Barr launched a frontal assault on the school district.

Setting his sights on Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles -- one of the city’s worst -- he went on an aggressive public campaign, calling on the district to break up the campus into several schools. Green Dot, he demanded, should run most or all of them.

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When negotiations faltered, Barr -- bolstered by a $6-million donation from philanthropist Casey Wasserman -- opened five charter schools around Jefferson last fall, hiring away teachers and administrators from district schools. Los Angeles Unified reluctantly made room for two of the schools on nearby district property.

That confrontational style has earned him more than a few detractors in the district.

At a parent meeting hosted by Green Dot a few months ago, L.A. Unified board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte angrily told those in attendance: “Steve Barr is a rich white millionaire trying to make money off our babies,” according to people there.

Poindexter LaMotte denies that she referred to Barr as “white” and said she was speaking out against what she sees as Green Dot’s “marketing” efforts.

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(Barr makes $180,000 a year from Green Dot and lives in Silver Lake with his wife and toddler.)

“Steve Barr is confrontational,” said Howard Lappin, chief academic officer for Alliance for College Ready Public Schools, a charter group. “I know he is doing what he thinks he must do to ensure that students learn, but I don’t think being confrontational is the best approach.”

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REGARDLESS, Barr has pressed ahead. In recent meetings with David L. Brewer, the district’s new superintendent, Barr has laid out plans to break up another of the district’s troubled high schools -- Locke, Dorsey or Crenshaw -- into several small schools that would be run by Green Dot. The proposal also calls for other charter operators to take over the middle schools that feed into the selected high school.

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Barr has said he’s encouraged by his first meetings with Brewer and, for his part, Brewer said he’s “not too worried about Barr’s history. He’s got a fresh start with me.”

If Barr succeeds, it would be a step toward his ultimate goal of persuading the district to reform its own schools using the Green Dot model. He wants out of the charter school business, he says.

But if Brewer can’t or won’t pull it off?

“We are prepared to go in and suck dry another class from another failing school if we have to,” Barr said.

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Barr is also leaving his imprint on City Hall.

The mayor recently hired Marshall Tuck, Barr’s chief operating officer, for his education team. And, last month, when Villaraigosa unveiled a districtwide reform plan he wants implemented, it was, in many ways, Green Dot redux.

Barr professes unwavering support for Villaraigosa. But should a future mayor back off from education reform, Barr not so coyly admits he harbors political aspirations.

“I have found an issue that I am very comfortable with and that I feel is a linchpin issue. It is an issue that has big repercussions beyond charter schools in Los Angeles,” he said. “Would I love to be mayor, pushing the education issue? Yeah, of course I would.

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“We’re just getting started.”

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joel.rubin@latimes.com


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