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Teenagers' Graduation Proves Activist's Vision

For the class of '04 at a Lennox-area charter school, education continues after diploma.

June 18, 2004|Jean Merl | 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.

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