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The Rise of Green Dot Schools

For years, L.A. Unified public school district leaders have looked at Steve Barr and Green Dot charter schools as the enemy. Is it time to call a truce?

June 2008
Steve Barr and Green Dot students.
Steve Barr and Green Dot students.

On a warm Los Angeles morning, Steve Barr strides through the modest offices of Green Dot Public Schools—the renegade charter school organization he founded nearly 10 years ago.

Dressed in knee-length plaid shorts, sneakers, and a baseball cap turned backward, Barr looks more like an oversize frat boy than an education revolutionary. He passes by a conference room where three of his lieutenants are planning Green Dot’s most audacious gamble to date, pokes his head in, says hello, and is gone. “Opening day at Dodger Stadium,” one of them says with a smile.

Turns out there is still time to have some fun, even when you’re busy flipping one of the country’s most entrenched and troubled public school systems upside down.

Indeed, Barr’s one day playing hooky—a pilgrimage the die-hard Dodgers fan has made every year for two decades—belies the seriousness of what he is trying to accomplish with Green Dot. Critics call him abrasive and self-serving, while supporters—and there are plenty of them, including billionaire philanthropists Bill Gates and Eli Broad, who together have committed more than $20 million to Green Dot—see him as a savvy, determined reformer. Like him or not, Barr won’t be satisfied until all of the roughly 140 middle and high schools in the L.A. Unified School District, serving 315,000 students, are remade in the Green Dot image.

Barr’s latest move on this front has raised the stakes, and raised eyebrows in education circles around the country. Last year, he orchestrated a hostile take-over of Locke High School, one of the district’s worst-performing high schools, and this fall he will reopen it as a network of small Green Dot charters run by new administrators and staffed with new faculty.  
“This is about systemic change,” he says, repeating the line that has become Green Dot’s mantra. “It’s not about how many charter schools I can open. Ultimately, this is about whether we can push a vision that people find compelling.”

Unlike most of the people involved in public education reform in L.A., Barr is not driven by any deep understanding of what should or shouldn’t go on in a classroom. He is not an educator—at least not in the traditional sense. He doesn’t have any degrees, and has never taught or been a principal. Largely a mix of liberal political instinct and progressive social activism, Barr is instead motivated by a broader conviction that education is “the great equalizer.” He speaks often of the countless uneducated Latino immigrant parents who make their way to Los Angeles in search of a better life for their children, and of the city’s marginalized and poor African-American underclass. Fixing the education their children receive is, to Barr, the only real chance they have.

It is a belief that stems from Barr’s own childhood. He, his mom, and his brother Michael moved frequently, and sometimes food ran short. For a year, when Steve was 5, his mother had to put the boys in foster care.

When Barr was a teenager, his mother made a decision that, he says, changed the course of his life. She moved the boys to a neighboring town so they could attend its high-performing high school. It was there that Barr came into his own. Michael, on the other hand, felt like an outsider.

Steve went on to attend the University of California at Santa Barbara. Michael dropped out of high school at 16, and joined the navy.After years of struggle, he died in 1992.

Barr traces Michael’s downward spiral back to their days in high school. Despite impressive funding and resources, the campus, Barr remembers, was a divided, unequal place, where some were rigorously prepared for college but most were overlooked. He is convinced that if Michael had been held to the same standards and given the same encouragement that was lavished on him, things would have turned out differently. Barr’s commitment to education equality fuels Green Dot.

Depending on where you stand in the charter school debate, no vantage point has been more exciting—or infuriating—than Los Angeles, a city in which you can watch the civic experiment play out. Over the past decade or so, L.A. Unified has approved the opening of more than 115 charter schools. Today the schools enroll about 6 percent of the district’s 694,000 students.
In essence, charters have created a parallel school district that is gaining momentum, while the district is struggling with several years of declining enrollment. 

At the center of it all is Barr, who opened his first school in 2000. Today, with 12 high schools in L.A Unified and a nearby district serving about 4,200 students, Green Dot is the largest charter operator in the region and one of the biggest in California. And, unlike at the vast majority of charters, Green Dot teachers are union members—a critical element of the pro-labor Barr’s model.

Every student who leaves a district-run school for a charter means the loss of roughly $9,400 for the district. In large part because of this pressure, and also because of Green Dot’s relentless campaign, the infamously detached district has had to try to become more responsive to teachers, parents, and community groups who all want a say in what goes on in the classroom. Most notably, the district opened an “innovation division,” which aims to help clear the way for reform ideas to be implemented.

 


Located in the region’s poorest neighborhoods, Green Dot schools are based on a commonsense assumption: All students can learn and can graduate from high school prepared for college if they are taught by capable, empowered teachers in small schools that hold them to high standards.

There is no secret formula for the Green Dot model. The schools are highly decentralized operations, with principals and faculty given wide latitude over budgets and academics. The only “non-negotiable” is a set of tenets that requires, among other things, parent involvement and a college-prep curriculum.

All Green Dot schools carry the name Animo, a Spanish word that, roughly translated, means vigor or spirit. Nearly all of the students are either Latino or black. More than one-third of them arrive struggling to speak English and well over 80 percent qualify for subsidized meals at school.

The first crop of Green Dot schools posted impressive, if uneven, results in their early years. Compared with traditional public schools with similar demographics, they consistently scored either at or near the top of the state’s ranking system.
At the campuses opened long enough to have a graduating class, nearly 8 of 10 students received diplomas on time, according to state statistics. Most have gone on to college, Green Dot says. No less important to many parents, the schools are safer, more intimate places, where every student is known by name. All the schools have long waiting lists.    

Success in some areas has been elusive. Math and science scores have languished behind the schools’ more impressive achievements in language arts, with many students scoring “below basic” or “far below basic” on state exams. And a rapid, stressful expansion effort in 2006, during which Green Dot doubled its number of schools in a year, took a toll when several of the older schools didn’t get the attention they needed and slipped backward in performance.

Much of the problem stemmed from, as Barr puts it, “flying by the seat of our pants academically.” Things changed dramatically last year when Barr hired Sandy Blazer, a respected administrator from high-performing Long Beach Unified School District, as the group’s first chief academic officer.

Blazer has taken the organization to another level, instilling a clearer sense of academic vision and providing a firm guiding hand. Autonomy is still the ideal, but much more attention is being paid to which teaching strategies are working across the Green Dot landscape—and which are not. Students are given in-house benchmarking assessments, and teachers meet with their counterparts from other campuses, allowing for data-driven comparisons between schools. Green Dot now highlights best practices, exporting ideas implemented successfully at one of the organization’s schools to others.
  
It all sounds a bit theoretical until you visit Andy Osterhaus’s physics class at Animo Pat Brown—a Green Dot school that rents out a church’s old, cramped school building off a busy street in a blighted neighborhood.

The first thing that strikes you is that the 25 or so students—all of them Latino—and Osterhaus are enjoying themselves as they delve into a review lesson on energy. The kids, dressed in the school’s required uniform of black shirts and khaki pants, are engaged in the discussion and clearly interested. There are no heads on desks and no notes being passed. It is a scene that plays out in most Green Dot schools: Discipline problems arise, but because of the schools’ small size, teachers are much more aware of problem students and are quick to deal with flare-ups.

What is even more striking is that the kids in Osterhaus’s class are all freshman. The principal, Chad Soleo, who worked for several years as a teacher and administrator in the L.A. Unified system, and his teachers decided that incoming students would better grasp the required algebra course if the material was also integrated into physics lessons, a class usually taught in junior year. Early signs are promising and the method will likely be adopted by other Green Dot schools next year.
It is a move that would never have been possible in behemoth, bureaucratic L.A. Unified, Soleo says.

“We definitely have freedom, but in Green Dot freedom comes with a lot of accountability,” he says. “We had a legitimate plan and they let us run with it, but they wanted to see results.”

Other high-performing charter schools in L.A. are producing results on par with Green Dot’s, or better. But while most charter schools admirably strive to impact the lives of their few hundred students, Barr is pursuing something considered altogether different. Long viewed by L.A. Unified officials as an aggressive outside force, Green Dot is now poised to become what Barr has long claimed he wants it to be: a legitimate partner with the district.

Last spring, Barr sent shock waves through the district when he announced the hostile takeover of Locke High—one of the city’s worst-performing high schools. Green Dot had quietly gathered signatures from a majority of tenured teachers at the school, which cleared the way for the organization to charter it. The powerful teachers union and the school board went bonkers over the idea of losing control of a campus, its faculty, and the more than $10 million in state funding that flowed to it. They made various attempts to thwart the takeover but to no avail, and, in the fall, the school will reopen as a series of small, autonomous schools under Green Dot control.

An earlier attempt to negotiate with the previous superintendent to take control of another of the district’s troubled high schools went nowhere. But with Locke, once L.A. superintendent David L. Brewer realized he was confronted with the inevitable, the conflict began to ease. The two sides are currently discussing how much money Green Dot will receive for each student. Green Dot officials expect the final figure will be several thousand dollars higher than the $6,600 normal charters receive from the state for each student.

“Finally, Brewer is treating this like a partnership,” Barr says, knocking on his wooden table. “Hopefully, it will
continue that way.”

The “Locke Transformation Project,” as it has been dubbed at Green Dot, poses incredible challenges for the group and on a scale they have never confronted before. Traditionally, Green Dot has opened new schools with only freshman and added a class each subsequent year until it is complete. But at Locke, they will be tasked at once with educating all of the more than 2,500 students enrolled, whether they have serious special education needs, are helplessly deficient in course credits, or
are gifted.

“It’s already an established culture there and we’re used to creating our own,” Barr says. “Dealing with that has been something new for us. ”The battle and preparations for Locke have brought with them serious attention from around the country. Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, was intrigued enough to come West for a visit. Within months, she and Barr announced plans for a Green Dot–UFT charter in New York’s South Bronx that will open this fall.

The opportunity to team up with Weingarten and prove, on such a grand stage, that it is possible, according to Barr, “to have total alignment among a union, a mayor, and outside groups that really want to change the system, instead of warring tribes and huge egos,” was too much to pass up. But Barr has declined the many requests that have poured in from groups in other cities hoping to open Green Dot schools in recent months.  There is, after all, plenty to do in his hometown.

“Five or six years ago, people weren’t talking about education in the innovative way they do today. You didn’t see the surges of activity that we’re making now,” Barr says. “You would hope at some point the district would say, ‘OK, how many of our schools can you handle?’

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