‘Why do we … build public schools that look like prisons?’

The man responsible for turning around the worst high school in Los Angeles is not an educator. He is a charter school leader who challenged a large, established bureaucracy and won. But the keys to his success can be implemented from within any large school system just as easily as from outside it: smaller school size, high expectations for every student, more parent involvement, and teachers who believe every child can learn.

Steve Barr, the founder and chairman of Green Dot Public Schools, a collection of charter schools, is a big guy with lots of charisma and panache.

He convinced the Los Angeles Unified School District to let him take over Locke High School as a charter school, or else he’d lure the students away to smaller charters. He also persuaded a majority of the school’s teachers to sign onto his version of the school–then he fired all the staff, only rehiring 40.

Yet he’s one of the few charter school operators whose teachers belong to a union. And he believes very deeply in the idea that all students deserve a high-quality education, even the poorest ones.

Barr is the subject of a short film called "The Takeover of Locke High School in Watts." In the film, Barr highlights the changes he made to turn the failing school around.

The film is one of 12 in a new series called "A 21st Century Education," produced by the Mobile Learning Institute (MLI), an initiative funded by the Pearson Foundation and Nokia. The point of the series is to start conversations about successful 21st-century education and school-reform initiatives.

"What was interesting about Steve Barr to me was how audacious he was," said Stephen Brown, the films’ producer. "If you meet him in person, and I think this comes through in the video, he’s a big guy, he’s extremely candid. He’s not an educator."

Brown added, "I just liked his gall. He just didn’t care. He cared [very much about the school], but he didn’t care what people thought."

The film is shot in black and white. Barr wears a baseball cap and talks to the camera. He sits in the outdoor lunch area, and he walks through the newly renovated courtyard of Locke High School. The camera pans from side to side, creating visual interest. Music plays. The setting looks like a university campus, with tall trees and students conversing on benches–but it wasn’t always that way.

Locke High School was gigantic, with 3,000 students. It was dangerous and wild. There were fights, kids smoking pot and playing craps, not going to school.

"There are 11th and 12th graders on this campus [who] don’t have any credits. They’ve been walking around for three years pretending to be students, but no credits," Barr says in the film.

"What ended up happening is all the surrounding schools … sent the toughest kids to this school," he says. "The Bloods and Crips first started within three blocks of this school. This is a school where–there’s no way to sugarcoat it–teachers come to play out their contracts. A lot of teachers come to hide. There was one teacher here last year [who] I was told was drunk for 20 years."

It was known as the school where kids got dumped, because no one knew what else to do with them. The Watts Riots of 1965 happened in that neighborhood. Months before Barr’s takeover, there was a riot within the school that reportedly required a 100-man SWAT team from the Los Angeles police department.

The film opens with Barr asking this question: "I’ve heard Jonathan Kozol and Warren Buffet say the same thing: If you want to fix public education in America, the fastest way to do it is to make private schools illegal. Now think about that. If the mayor of the city had to send [his] kids to Locke High School, or Arnold Schwarzenegger had to send [his] kids to Locke High School, do you know how fast this school would change?"

The fact that no celebrity or public figure would send his or her own children to a Los Angeles area public school is an issue of justice for Barr, Brown said.

"The first thing I noticed was that these schools really look like prisons. They have barbed wire around them, the kids are on top of each other, the adults communicate by alarms, and the kids are herded in and out," Barr says in the film.

At Locke, he noticed powerless teachers, indifference to parents, and kids getting pushed through the system.

Barr went to the toniest high schools in Los Angeles to find out what a $25,000 tuition afforded, then he transferred that to Locke High School.

"I was looking at what a model would look like for a good urban high school, and I said, what does $25,000 get you in Los Angeles? If you are a big movie star or athlete, what does the school look like that you send your kid to?" Barr says.

He discovered the answer included a small school size, with fewer than 500 students; high expectations for all students; the best tools and facilities; responsiveness to parents; and parental involvement.

"If that works in rich-kid schools, why do we still build public schools that look like prisons?" Barr says.

It was back to basics. Barr and his team painted the whole school, transformed the courtyard, and hired teachers who believed the kids could learn. "That [makes] a big difference. You can’t change a school unless you do that," Barr says.

Green Dot has its own teacher’s union, but no tenure. Teachers are empowered to set their own curriculum and the length of their workdays. They are encouraged to get to know and believe in each student. The faculty is accountable to the parents.

He divided the school into several smaller schools, each with its own leaders. There are new rules. Students wear uniforms.

Barr tells a story of his introverted brother dropping out of high school and eventually dying of a drug overdose.

"My brother would do really well in a school like this, because the teacher would get to know something unique about him. Not just the loud kids, not just the popular kids, not just the athletes. That’s a very big part of what we are trying to do here. Every one of these kids has value," Barr says.

He also wants the teachers to respect students, engage them, and explain why they are learning what they are learning. He wants teachers to feel empowered, to have control over what happens in the classroom.

"You are never going to get kids to fill their potential by dumbing down to them or talking down to them," Barr says.

Parents must be involved in school activities 30 hours per year. "Parents thrive on being involved–but [by doing] something that is meaningful, not something that is a waste of time," Barr says.

Charter schools, Barr says, are good research-and-development models for what an entire school district could look like. Barr wants to see system-wide change. Locke High School is a model that is showing others it can be done–and here’s how.

"Our mission is pretty simple. I want to change the whole system, not just create a bunch of charter schools," Barr says.

"When we liberated this school, when we took this school from the school district acting under No Child Left Behind, we took $26 million away from the school district. That hurt. And we took 126 members of the Los Angeles teacher’s union. That hurt," Barr says.

The MLI film series profiles individuals who decide they are going to do something to change education. They are going to stick their necks out there and be the face of something that is controversial.

"He’s a guy who said, ‘I’m going to do something,’ and for whatever reason, he chose education, which is really remarkable," Brown said of Barr.


"The Takeover of Locke High School in Watts"

Mobile Learning Institute’s film series, "A 21st Century Education"

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