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The State | COLUMN ONE

Give him an A for ambition

Steve Barr operates 10 L.A. charter schools and sees in them the future of public education. His critics say he's more politician than educator.

February 20, 2007|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

STEVE Barr may not be a household name, but he is doing more these days to shake up public education in Los Angeles than anyone but Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Barr is pushy, ambitious and determined to draw attention to his 10 charter high schools, publicly financed campuses that, in exchange for boosting student achievement, are given broad freedom to design their curriculum and to avoid many other restrictions set by school districts.

He believes they should be the model for transforming the nation's second-largest school district, saving a couple hundred thousand minority students and enticing middle-class families back to city schools along the way.

Critics counter that Barr's early success is unsustainable and exaggerated. Barr, they say, is a politician in educator's clothing.

They might not be all wrong: Barr wants to be mayor too.

"My mission is systemic change," Barr said. "I don't want to be building charter school No. 49."

If there is a center to the fast-expanding charter universe, it is the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is home to more charters than any other district in the country. And in the midst of it all is the 47-year-old Barr, who in 1999 founded Green Dot Public Schools.

It would be easy to dismiss Barr as just a brash salesman, except that people keep listening to him. Philanthropist Eli Broad recently gave Green Dot $10.5 million to help the $34-million-a-year operation triple in size. (By 2010, Barr says, he can have one of every 10 high school students in the district enrolled in Green Dot.) About 1,000 parents, meanwhile, have joined a parents group he created to push his reform ideas in schools from Venice to East L.A. And Villaraigosa is using Green Dot ideas as part of his push to overhaul city schools.

"Steve Barr is a believer that one person can change the world," Villaraigosa said. "He is absolutely passionate about transforming our schools, and has put in the blood, sweat and tears to make it happen."

Barr has never worked as a principal or a teacher. Indeed, compared to the professional educators who typically start charter schools, he doesn't know much about teaching kids. Nevertheless, Green Dot high schools have posted some promising early results.

Located in some of the region's toughest, poorest Latino and black neighborhoods, Barr's schools are rooted in a common-sense assumption: All students can learn if they are held to high expectations and taught by capable, empowered teachers in small schools.

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TO understand how Barr got into the business of educating kids, you have to know the pain and guilt he feels about his dead brother, Michael.

The brothers lived a meager and unsettled childhood. Their father left shortly after Michael was born and Steve was 2. Their mother, who worked odd jobs and as an Army dental assistant, raised the boys herself. They moved frequently, landing in such places as Fond du Lac, Wis., and Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo. For a year, when Steve was 5, his mother put the boys in foster care.

"My mom was a tough lady but always on the borderline of cracking up because it was just overwhelming," Barr said. "We had the basics, but for a few years there it was really tough.... We were never incredibly hungry, but I was not unfamiliar with it."

Before Barr started high school, the family moved to California and Barr's mother made a decision that he credits with changing his life. After renting a one-bedroom apartment in San Jose, she moved the family again, this time just a few blocks into neighboring Cupertino, so her boys could attend the town's high-performing high school.

At Cupertino High, Barr came into his own. He was an average student but a star basketball player. He fell in easily with the jocks and the privileged kids of Hewlett-Packard engineers.

His brother, however, foundered. A chubby, awkward kid with ill-fitting glasses, Michael struggled to make friends. While Barr played it straight ("I didn't drink a beer until senior year and still have never done a drug stronger than tequila"), Michael got heavily into drugs.

Their lives diverged dramatically. Steve went on to a local community college and later transferred to UC Santa Barbara. Michael dropped out of high school at 16. After he was busted for drug possession, a judge essentially gave him a choice between jail and the Navy, Barr said. Michael enlisted, becoming a ship's cook.

Years later, shortly after leaving the Navy, Michael was hit by a flower truck that had run a light. One of his legs was crushed, and in the years that followed, he underwent dozens of operations in a futile effort to ease the pain. In 1992, he died of an overdose of alcohol and painkillers.

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