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Charter School Crusader Makes Waves in L.A.

October 10, 2005|Jean Merl | Times Staff Writer

The man who wants to take over Los Angeles' troubled Jefferson High School has no qualms about pointing out that he was "a horrible student." And that he has no teaching credential, no education degree.

But Steve Barr, 46, turned a gift for political organizing and a vision for changing lives in some of L.A.'s roughest communities into a string of charter high schools that outscore traditional neighboring campuses on standardized tests and send most of their largely low-income, black or Latino students to college.

Barr's five Green Dot Public Schools -- serving Lennox, Inglewood, Boyle Heights, Venice and South Los Angeles -- have won him admirers and allies from across the political spectrum. But his campaign to wrest Jefferson from the Los Angeles Unified School District and his aggressive -- some say showboating -- style have earned him critics too.

District officials liked Barr and his charters. They had been talking with him over several months about potential collaborations as they tried to turn around some of their struggling high schools and create smaller, more personalized learning environments.

Those schools included Jefferson, one of the district's lowest-achieving campuses. Last year, nearly 92% of its students tested below proficient on standardized math exams, and in the spring, a series of melees occurred between black and Latino students.

In August, Barr stunned district officials by saying that he and the Small Schools Alliance, an education reform group he heads, wanted to take over Jefferson and turn it into several charter campuses. Even after the district had taken steps to improve the school, the alliance launched a signature-gathering drive and began holding meetings to enlist parents and others in the effort.

Supt. Roy Romer fumed about a "hostile takeover," and school board member Mike Lansing, who had been a Barr ally in earlier reform efforts, called him a "lone ranger." United Teachers Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy labeled it a bad idea and urged Jefferson teachers not to cooperate.

Barr, a longtime Democratic activist, said he was tired of waiting for the district to take big steps toward reforming its schools: "Sometimes you have to put out a call in order to get some action."

In the weeks since his call to take over Jefferson, Barr has been holding meetings in an apartment complex across from the school, accepting speaking engagements and walking precincts with alliance volunteers to collect signatures for a show of support.

Early one morning, he handed out free Starbucks coffee to teachers as they pulled into the Jefferson parking lot. He barely took time off for the Aug. 20 birth of his first child, Zofia Diana. When she was 3 weeks old, Barr and his wife, Teresa Wierzbianska, took her with them to the six neighborhood churches they visited to talk about Jefferson.

Few who knew Barr in childhood would have predicted that he would one day move easily among power brokers and politicos, let alone that he would be running a group of schools.

These are just a few of his fans:

"I admire him greatly," said Frank Baxter, a retired investment banker, contributor to Republican causes and charter school advocate. Barr is "a common-sense reformer" who is "very effective," said billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, a Democrat whose foundation focuses on education reform and has given money to charters, including Green Dot. Former President Clinton paid a well-publicized visit to Barr's first school.

Barr and his younger brother were raised by a single mother who worked full time after their father left. She had little time or energy to get involved in their schooling.

Barr drifted through the Bay Area's Cupertino High School, where only social studies classes and basketball interested him.

"My teachers kept telling my mom, 'Steve could be a good student if he would just apply himself,' " Barr recalled.

A budding interest in politics and an outgoing personality helped him become student body president. He attended community college before graduating from UC Santa Barbara.

He worked for several nonprofit organizations and grew more deeply involved in Democratic politics. He worked on the staff of the state party for about a year during former Gov. Jerry Brown's tenure as chairman. Barr left the party job in 1990 to help found Rock the Vote, which was widely credited with involving young people in the political process.

In 1993, he ran for Democratic state chairman, losing a longshot campaign 67% to 33% to political commentator Bill Press. The experience did not dampen his interest in running, however. Barr said he briefly considered joining the large field of candidates in the mayor's race earlier this year; many who know him expect him to run for an elective public office someday.

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