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PROFILE / STEVE BARR

Charter School Crusader Makes Waves in L.A.

October 10, 2005|Jean Merl | Times Staff Writer

Barr's interest in education coincided with California's 1992 legislation allowing the creation of charter schools, which are public but independently operated and free from many of the requirements and regulations that bind traditional campuses.

In 2000, Barr opened his first school, using his savings of about $100,000, advice from education professors at Loyola Marymount University and help from a small elementary district near LAX. Officials of the Lennox School District wanted an alternative for their largely impoverished, mostly Latino immigrant students, many of whom dropped out or fared badly in the local high school district.

All of Barr's schools must follow what he calls "the nonnegotiables": limit enrollment to 500 students, require a college prep curriculum with help for students who are behind to catch up during their first year, and give teachers decision-making powers and higher salaries in exchange for hard work and lack of tenure. Parents are required to help out, and administrative costs are kept to a minimum.

Barr used the Green Dot model to form the Small Schools Alliance early this year to try to make Los Angeles Unified, which operates independently of the city, an issue in the mayor's race. Broad contributed, and Baxter and former Mayor Richard Riordan raised much of the $1.5 million spent on television spots to bring their brand of school reform to voters' attention and pressure candidates to embrace its main tenets.

Romer said Barr's creation of the Green Dot schools "provided a great service" by developing a new model for the district and others.

But when Barr and the alliance tried to influence debate in the mayor's race, Romer said, Barr's activism "became a political agenda," causing the superintendent to back off. He said he was surprised and angered by the Jefferson campaign.

"It's a distraction," Romer said, adding that it would be inappropriate for the district to relinquish control of the school.

Over the weekend, Barr announced that his group had collected 6,000 signatures, well over its initial goal of 2,500, and on Nov. 1 he expects to submit plans to divide Jefferson into six small charters.

With characteristic optimism, he said he continued to hope the district would cooperate.

"I'd still like to work collaboratively on this," he said. "I still think it's possible."

*

Education activist

* Education: A C-minus student at the Bay Area's Cupertino High School, Class of 1977; attended community college before earning a degree in political science from UC Santa Barbara in 1984.

* Personal: Born July 25, 1959; 6 feet 3; likes surfing in Mexico.

* Inspiration: Former Gov. Pat Brown, whom he met while fundraising for the California Democratic Party; and his only sibling, Michael, who died 12 years ago after a troubled life.

* His charter schools: All share the name Animo, Spanish for "spirit" or "vigor." They are Animo Leadership Charter High School near Lennox, Animo Inglewood, Animo Oscar de la Hoya in Boyle Heights, Animo Venice and Animo South Los Angeles.

* Family: Married to Teresa Wierzbianska, 26, whom he met three years ago at Burning Man, an annual counterculture arts festival in the Nevada desert. She was a National Public Radio reporter based in Alaska at the time. Their first child, Zofia Diana, was born Aug. 20. They live in Silver Lake, after moving recently from downtown.

* Adjectives associates use to describe him: Smart, energetic, politically skilled, garrulous, ambitious, impatient, limelight-attracted, committed, funny, and a little hyperactive.

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