Interview: Steve Barr on how Green Dot’s schools are beating the odds in Los Angeles
Rather than lobby the State Board of Education to create reform in the public school system, Steve Barr uses grassroots political tactics to motivate families to demand change. A co-founder of Rock the Vote and former Americorps program manager, Barr founded Green Dot Public Schools, the leading charter school management organization in Los Angeles, with more than 3,000 students. Where only 30 percent of the graduates in the L.A. Unified School District fulfill the city’s academic requirements for college, over 90 percent of Green Dot graduates do. And more than 80 percent of Green Dot’s students graduate, compared with 50 percent for the city as a whole. Here, Barr explains what motivated him to create accountable schools where all students have the opportunity to succeed.
Dowser: The Green Dot model centers on six key tenants: 1) small, safe, personalized schools; 2) high expectations for all students; 3) locally managed schools; 4) increased parent participation; 5) maximum funding to the classroom; and 6) keeping schools open later. What influenced you most in formulating this model?
Barr: I went to some traditional public schools and saw things I didn’t want to replicate: they were huge, undemocratic, and looked like prisons. But I was more influenced than anything by the private preparatory schools. I asked the question: what does $25,000 per pupil get you at these fancy schools? They were small, gave personalized attention, and had high expectations for their kids. If these basic things worked for the richest kids, I thought, they should work for the poorest.
Green Dot runs 16 charter schools in L.A., and one in the Bronx. Every other major charter organization in the country has fought off teachers unions, but Green Dot embraces unions—why is that?
I didn’t see the value of going to a 100% unionized industry with non-union labor, especially when I think I could attract better teachers with more money. We are more efficient than other schools in our districts, so we pay consistently 10% to 15% more than they do.
Also, there’s a big disconnect in public education because all curriculum decisions are made by outsiders. I want teachers to have more say in what they teach. That can be put in the union contract, and then you can challenge teachers to be more accountable.
Green Dot is a nonprofit charter management organization. What distinguishes Green Dot from other charter operators?
My expertise in politics has been a boost. A lot of the Green Dot model is old-fashioned organization sense: recruit and breed leaders, nurture their leadership, and look at communities as a shared value system.
It also comes down to a love for retail politics, which means going into neighborhoods where people have been promised for decades that something would happen and nothing has. Knowing that you have to go to an African-American church in South Central maybe five times before people actually start taking you seriously. The reason all schools aren’t excellent is a political problem.
How do the communities respond to your involvement and your follow-through?
A minister gave me the highest compliment I have ever gotten professionally: ‘Do you know how many people have come to this neighborhood and made promises over the decades? Everybody from politicians to presidents. And you know how many people actually follow through? You are probably the first, and you actually said you are going to do this and you did it, and that gives you a lot of credibility.’
How have you used your political savvy to rally parents?
I always tell parents, ‘Coming to our school is the ultimate revolutionary act, because you are saying to the public school system that what stands for education is no longer acceptable.’ I give out my home number and say, ‘If anything ever gets in the way of feeling that your kids are being given the best public education, you call me, and I will be there for you.’ Most of these families are made up of busboys, or cooks at a hotel around LAX, and they have come to this country and have never tasted democracy. Nobody, let alone a public school, has ever treated them with respect.
Have you used lessons from politics to overcome resistance from school districts?
Yes. When the district wouldn’t work with us on one of the lowest-ranking schools in L.A., we mobilized families. We went door to door with this simple message: ‘Do you want a small, safe school that will prepare your kids for college?’ We rallied 10,000 signatures and 1,000 of those people marched to the school district to present the charters. It transformed the neighborhood, and when we opened those five schools, we took half the kids off that failed campus.
How about a success story from one of your schools?
We started with 140 kids at Animo Leadership Charter High School, in one of the poorest areas of L.A.. Seven out of 10 of those kids were not graduating from high school in the local school district. Despite the fact that we started with five teachers who had never taught, a principal who hadn’t been a principal, and an organization headed by a person who had never been in education before, we saw immediate results. We had 100% attendance most days. Test scores were triple those at the high school the kids would normally attend.
It was astonishing that these theories that we believed in actually worked—the young teachers with development got better; the kids with individualized instruction got better; the parents were challenged and included, and they showed up.
What is your long-term vision for Green Dot and for influencing public education in California?
Our basic theory of change is that we concentrate on L.A.. We feel that if you can change the second biggest school district in the country from a grassroots level, it will have ripple effects. Ultimately, our goal is that in five years, all public schools in L.A. will be like Green Dot schools — not charter schools — but schools where the dollars go directly into the school site, the schools are small, and they follow the basic tenants that we believe in.
This interview was edited and condensed.