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Steve Barr: Beyond Charters

Hillel Aron | August 2, 2012

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Steve Barr

There was a time when Green Dot Public Schools founder Steve Barr — the man responsible for the 2008 hostile takeover of Locke High School and a frequent critic of the teachers union and the Board — was seen by many as the barbarian at the gate.

Now, Barr has a daughter in 2nd grade at Ivanhoe Elementary, one of the better public schools in the city, and it seems as if he and LAUSD have met halfway. He and a small group of UTLA teachers will partner with the district to start one or more pilot schools – schools that will have more autonomy than normal public schools but remain within the district.

“My theory of change was that charter schools could be good research and development for what a district could be,” Barr said in an interview earlier this week. “It was always about changing LAUSD– not just creating a bunch of charter schools.”

Kathy Haggerman teaches AP World History and health at Fairfax High. She and another teacher are working with Barr to put a new pilot school on the Fairfax campus.

“I come from insurance industry,” Haggerman told me the other day. “I look at teaching, and I’m horrified. It’s not necessarily a model that rewards excellence.”

At first, Haggerman started talking to Barr about turning Fairfax High into a Charter, just like he did with Locke. But then she decided she’d rather work within LAUSD.

Her shcool would hire UTLA teachers, but under a different contract, one that would have to be renewed every year. There would be no tenure.

“We don’t have to keep anyone that is ineffective,” said Haggerman. “Most teachers are great, but the ones that are terrible can wreck a school.”

There are two other groups like Haggerman’s that are working with Barr to start new schools– one on the Eastside (Silver Lake or Los Feliz, near Ivanhoe), and one on the Westside (Venice or Mar Vista). They are still in the early design phases, meeting with teachers and community members, but Barr hopes that one or more of them will open in the Fall of next year.

Sujata Bhatt, a teacher at Grand View Elementary, is on the design team for the Westside school. She wants to design a school with an entirely different approach to curriculum.

“I think it’s time to rethink our schools,” she told me. “Traditional textbook-based instruction isn’t really serving our kids. Kids are growing up in a video game world They need to be engaged in a different way.”

Teachers like Bhatt and Haggerman see no reason why charters should be the only schools doing the innovating.

Placing the new schools in middle class neighborhoods is something of a new strategy for Barr, who placed most of his Green Dot schools in lower-income areas. He pointed to his own neighborhood, where parents love Ivanhoe (housing prices are famously at a premium near the school) but don’t have any comparable choices when it comes to middle school and high school– unless you count charters or private schools.

“People can’t afford private,” he said. “The district has got to be more proactive or else theyr’e going to be swallowed up by charters.”

There are already a handful of charter schools– Larchmont, Citizens of the World, and Los Feliz– that attract middle-class parents.

But Barr has a more ambitious goal: to make sure the middle class has an incentive to invest in public education.

“We’re looking at tax initiatives to turn the system around,” he said, “if you don’t have the middle class involved, I don’t know how you’re gonna get public buy-in. I don’t know how the system changes without the middle class.”

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