Steve Barr stood in the breezeway at Alain Leroy Locke High School, at the edge of the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, on a February morning. He's more than six feet tall, with white-gray hair that's perpetually unkempt, and the bulk of an ex-jock. Beside him was Ramon Cortines--neat, in a trim suit--the Los Angeles Unified School District's new superintendent. Cortines had to be thinking about last May, when, as a senior deputy superintendent, he had visited under very different circumstances. That was when a tangle between two rival cliques near an outdoor vending machine turned into a fight that spread to every corner of the schoolyard. Police sent more than a dozen squad cars and surged across the campus in riot gear, as teachers grabbed kids on the margins and whisked them into locked classrooms.
The school's test scores had been among the worst in the state. In recent years, seventy-five per cent of incoming freshmen had dropped out. Only about three per cent graduated with enough credits to apply to a California state university. Two years ago, Barr had asked L.A.U.S.D. to give his charter-school-management organization, Green Dot Public Schools, control of Locke, and let him help the district turn it around. When the district refused, Green Dot became the first charter group in the country to seize a high school in a hostile takeover. ("He's a revolutionary," Nelson Smith, the president and C.E.O. of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said.) Locke reopened in September, four months after the riot, as a half-dozen Green Dot schools.
"Last year, there was graffiti everywhere," Barr said. "You'd see kids everywhere--they'd be out here gambling. You'd smell weed." He recalled hearing movies playing in classroom after classroom: "People called it ghetto cineplex." Barr and Cortines walked to the quad, where the riot had started. The cracked pavement had been replaced by a lawn of thick green grass, lined with newly planted olive trees.
"It's night and day," Cortines said.
In the past decade, Barr has opened seventeen charter high schools--small, locally managed institutions that aim for a high degree of teacher autonomy and parent involvement--in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, as well as one in the Bronx. His charter-school group is now California's largest, by enrollment, and one of its most successful. Green Dot schools take kids who, in most cases, test far below grade level and send nearly eighty per cent of them to college. (Only forty-seven per cent of L.A.U.S.D. students graduate with a high-school diploma.) As of 2006, Green Dot's standardized-test scores were almost twenty per cent higher than L.A. Unified's average, and, adjusting for student demographics, the state Department of Education grades their performance a nine on a scale of one to ten; L.A.U.S.D. schools rate only a five.
Barr himself has a colorful reputation. He drives a decommissioned police car, a Crown Victoria with floodlights, which he bought from a friend, the former Fox executive who launched the network's reality show "Cops." ("It's faster than anything on the road," he told me, and when he wants to change lanes "people move out of the way.") He met his wife, an Alaskan radio reporter twenty years his junior, at a Burning Man festival seven years ago, and married her in Las Vegas three weeks later. And this is how he talks about working with what is arguably the country's most troubled big-city school system: "You ever see that movie 'Man on Fire,' with Denzel Washington? There's a scene in the movie where the police chief of Mexico City gets kidnapped by Denzel Washington. He wakes up, he's on the hood of his car under the underpass, in his boxers, his hands tied. Denzel Washington starts asking him questions, he's not getting the answers he wants, so he walks away from him, and leaves a bomb stuck up his ass." Barr laughed. "I don't want to blow up L.A.U.S.D.'s ass. But what will it take to get this system to serve who they need to serve? It's going to take that kind of aggressiveness."
Green Dot's ascent stems mostly from Barr's skill as an instigator and an organizer. Outrageous rhetoric is a big part of that, and it's not uncalculated. "It takes a certain amount of panache to call the head of the union a pig fucker," Ted Mitchell, the president of the California State Board of Education, said. (Those weren't Barr's words exactly.) "Steve has this 'Oh, shucks, you know me--I can't control my mouth' persona. It allows him to get away with murder." But, Mitchell points out, "he's a public curmudgeon and a private negotiator." And he has built Green Dot to be a political force unlike anything else in the world of education. For instance, Barr runs the only large charter organization in the country that has embraced unionized teachers and a collectively bargained contract--an unnecessary hassle, if his aim was to run a few schools, but a source of leverage for Green Dot's main purpose, which is to push for citywide change. "I don't see how you tip a system with a hundred per cent unionized labor without unionized labor," he said.
First period at Locke was ending. Kids swarmed the halls, shoving and laughing and posturing and flirting for every last second of their five minutes of freedom. Barr was quiet with Cortines, almost solicitous. Cortines, for his part, seemed eager for peace. After years of failed attempts to fix Locke, nobody could ignore how much Green Dot had accomplished in a matter of months.
Another fight between Barr and L.A.U.S.D. seemed inevitable, though. After Cortines left, Barr said, "Ray and I have had conversations about Fremont High School," another large troubled school, in South Los Angeles. But Cortines, he knew, was hesitant. "I've been clear that we can talk," Cortines told me later. "I can't necessarily deliver. I still think we have to look at the evidence from Locke." Data like test scores, graduation rates, and student retention won't be available until later this year.
Barr doesn't want to hear it. "Nobody can tell me that a small, autonomous, well-funded school, where the parents are involved, where accountability is put on that staff, is not the right way to go," he said. "We get along really well, but I get fucking impatient."
Cortines didn't know that Barr was already planning his next assault on the district, one he described to me as "Armageddon." He planned to target five to ten of the largest, worst-performing schools in Los Angeles, and then submit a hundred charters for new schools to be clustered around them. Then he would give the district a choice: it could either dissolve most of the central bureaucracy, and turn over hiring, firing, and spending decisions to neighborhood schools, or surrender leadership of the schools to Green Dot. If the district refused both options, Barr would open his new schools and begin stealing thousands of students, and the millions of dollars in funding that follow them. "If I take ten Locke High Schools, they can't survive," he said.
But, just weeks after Cortines's visit to Locke, Barr got a call from the new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. He flew to Washington, D.C., at the end of March, for what he expected to be a social visit. At the meeting, Duncan revealed that he was interested in committing several billion dollars of the education stimulus package to a Locke-style takeover and transformation of the lowest-performing one per cent of schools across the country, at least four thousand of them, in the next several years. The Department of Education would favor districts that agreed to partner with an outside group, like Green Dot. "You seem to have cracked the code," Duncan told Barr.
Duncan was interested in the fact that Barr was targeting high schools, not elementary or middle schools. "The toughest work in urban education today is what you do with large failing high schools," Duncan told me. These schools get less study and less attention from charter groups and education reformers, most of whom feel that ninth grade is too late to begin saving kids. "Teach for America, NewSchools Venture Fund, the Broad Foundation--all these folks are doing extraordinary work in public education," Duncan said. "Nobody national is turning around large failing high schools."
When Barr got back to Los Angeles, he told me, "We're being asked, 'Could you guys do five schools in L.A. next year? Could you expand beyond L.A.?' If you'd asked a month ago, 'What about Green Dot America?,' I would have said, 'No way.' But if this President wants to get after it I'm going to reconsider."
Barr opened his first school in August of 2000, at the edge of Lennox, a poor, mostly Spanish-speaking community near Los Angeles International Airport, under a landing path. The local high school, Hawthorne, was a few miles away. "Where the Beach Boys went," Barr said. "Now it's a dropout factory."
He announced plans for the school at a middle-school gymnasium crowded with families. "I told the parents, 'When you come to this school, seven thousand dollars follows you' "--the rough sum that California paid a charter school to educate a child. " 'That's your money. I will treat that like tuition.' " He promised them a school that was safe, local, and accountable. He said he'd need their help. And he gave everyone his home phone number and said that they could call him anytime. By the end of the night, he had a hundred and forty kids committed to his ninth-grade class. Suddenly, he said, "I started shaking."
"I'm standing in front of these parents, who have no money--all they have is their kids," he recalled. "And they're trusting me. I didn't have a facility yet, and I didn't have a staff. It was February, and school was opening in August. I walked out to the parking lot and threw up."
Opening a school was an unlikely move for Barr. He had done fundraising for California politicians, helped organize the Olympic-torch relay before the 1984 Summer Games, and spent three years as an on-air television reporter. He co-founded Rock the Vote, and worked on Bill Clinton's 1992 Presidential campaign. But he'd never thought much about education. In fact, he'd been a mediocre student.
Barr was born in 1959, just south of San Francisco, and lived with his mother in Monterey, near the military base, where she worked as a dental assistant and a cocktail waitress. When he was six, he and his younger brother spent a year in foster care. Later, they made their home in a trailer in Missouri, before moving back to California.
In school, Barr was a good athlete, and popular. Every teacher knew his name. His brother, Mike, was quiet and overweight. Mike tried playing in the band for a while. ("Why do you give the chubby kid a tuba?" Barr asked, sighing. "Do you know how hilarious it is seeing a chubby kid try to get on the bus with a tuba?") But soon Mike got lost in their large high school. Steve graduated, and went on to the University of California at Santa Barbara. Mike dropped out, and never really settled into an adult life. Eventually, he was in a motorcycle accident. After a series of surgeries, he lost his leg. He won a settlement, but that attracted the wrong friends. "You take a poor kid who has problems and give him a lot of money . . ." Barr said. When Barr was thirty-two, Mike died of a drug overdose. His mother died shortly afterward, and Barr began to drift.
He discovered charter schools by accident. When President Clinton went to San Carlos to visit California's first charter school, Barr tagged along, and encountered the school's founder, Don Shalvey, and a Silicon Valley businessman, Reed Hastings, who had just founded Netflix. Shalvey and Hastings were about to draw up a ballot initiative that would increase the number of charter schools in California. Barr decided to help. "He came out of nowhere," Hastings said. And he brought a very different approach. He persuaded them, for instance, to try to make peace with the California Teachers Association. "He helped us realize we were perhaps overly simplistic in demonizing the union as the enemy," Hastings said. "It turned out C.T.A. was open to a stronger charter law."
As Barr worked on the campaign, he started to think about his own years in school, and his brother's. High school, he decided, was the point where their lives diverged. When the charter-school measure passed, he broke up with his girlfriend, moved out of their apartment, gave up his convertible, and rented a decrepit place in Venice, sight unseen. He moved in on Christmas morning, to a room strewn with needles, vomit, and feces. "I'm thirty-nine, I'm alone," he said. "Merry fucking Christmas." He tied his chocolate Lab, Jerry Brown, in the corner, put on the Harry Belafonte album his mother used to play every Saturday morning, when they did chores together, and scrubbed the apartment.
A year and a half later, he opened Animo Leadership Charter High School, near Lennox. (He said that in Spanish animo can mean "courage" or "valor," but he prefers a Mexican surfing buddy's translation: "Get off your ass.") He hired five of his seven teachers straight out of college and rented classrooms at a night school. When one of the teachers quit in the first couple of weeks, he replaced her with his office manager. Barr worked mostly without pay for the next few years, spending the last of his savings and his brother's settlement, and doing such damage to his finances that Costco revoked his membership. He pitched in a lot himself. "Maybe the most fun I had was going to test-drive school buses," he said.
And he starting a surfing club. "There were a handful of kids at the school who were really fricking cool but weren't being reached somehow," he said. "There was a kid named Ricky. He was smart, charismatic. All the girls loved this guy. There was another girl named Stephanie, who I think had a crush on Ricky." They agreed to find twenty-five kids who would show up before school, at 6 A.M.
"We were driving to the South Bay, Manhattan Beach. It was real quiet," Barr recalled. "Halfway out there, one of the kids said, 'Mr. Barr, do you have to know how to swim to surf?' " Half the kids couldn't. Barr put his head in his hands and laughed.
"The Manhattan Beach school system, they actually have surfing in gym class, so you have all these blond-haired, blue-eyed kids in the water," Barr continued. "And here come these kids from Lennox. The Lennox surf team." He mimicked a slow, tough walk. "Their gear's a little off, you know, they're all Latino, and a couple of black kids. I remember them getting triple takes."
At the end of its first chaotic year, Barr's school beat Hawthorne High School in every measurable outcome. "When the scores come out, I have to call Shalvey"--Barr's charter-school mentor--"and ask him, 'Are they good?' " Barr said. " 'Cause I don't fucking know. I don't know how to read test scores." The night school eventually moved, and Animo Leadership took over the entire campus. Last year, U.S. News & World Report ranked it among the top hundred public high schools in the country.
A pair of skinny Latino boys with shoulder-length hair cruised down Locke's breezeway on their skateboards. Zeus Cubias, an assistant principal, turned and glared. It was a few minutes after the last bell, and the two kids had swapped their uniform polos for black band T-shirts.
"What did I tell you? Don't act the fool," Cubias said sternly, as the boys picked up their skateboards. He turned to the taller boy. "Especially when you're wearing a Guns N' Roses shirt. Don't embarrass the shirt." The boy laughed. "Next time, I'm taking boards," Cubias said.
Cubias is compact and athletic, with floppy hair, a tidy beard, and three earrings. "I'd be doing the same thing when I was a kid," he admitted. He grew up just a few blocks down the street, and graduated from Locke, class of '92. He showed me his freshman yearbook. "Here's the Jheri Curl mullet," he said, flipping through the faces. "Ghetto business in the front, ghetto party in the back. And here's me, sporting my own mullet."
The high school opened in 1967, two years after the Watts riots. Named for Alain Leroy Locke, the country's first African-American Rhodes Scholar, it was set on a twenty-six-acre plot near the edge of the neighborhood, and was meant to be a symbol of rebirth. But by the time Cubias was a freshman, jobs and middle-class families had disappeared; the school, like the neighborhood, became infamous. Security guards with metal-detecting wands would interrupt class to spot-check boys.
As a freshman, Cubias landed in remedial and English as a Second Language classes. "I had a Spanish name," he said. Most Latinos in Watts were recent immigrants, and there were so many kids, and so few counsellors, that it was hard to keep everyone straight. Locke had grown huge. Los Angeles went more than thirty years without building a new high school, even as the city's population swelled; schools like Locke, meant for about fifteen hundred kids, doubled their enrollment, packing classrooms and erecting cheap, prefabricated units in their parking lots. Cubias ditched class a lot and got bad grades. But a substitute covering his English class thought he seemed out of place and recommended him for an honors class. When he showed up the first day, he recalled, he met a girl with black hair and ojos tapatíos--almond-shaped eyes--who carried a novel wherever she went. He was smitten. "I had heard about kids who read books, but they were, like, mythical," Cubias said, laughing. He asked a counsellor to give him the same class schedule as the girl, and in that instant he passed from one world to another. She took all honors classes, on her way to graduating as valedictorian.
"These poor high schools, you have an Advanced Placement track, and the teachers only believe in triage, so they put the kids who have a chance in that track," Barr explained. "It's built on the back of the other three tracks."
Cubias ended up scoring a 5 on his A.P. calculus exam, which no Locke student had ever done before, and went to the University of California at Santa Barbara. Even before he left Locke, he knew that he wanted to come back and teach there. "Now, I'm bilingual, and a math teacher, with a University of California certification," Cubias said. "In this district, I'm gold." But when he first went downtown to apply for a teaching position and said that he wanted a job at Locke he was told, "You don't have to teach there. You're qualified to teach at this place, or this place, or this place."
The interviewer thought she was doing him a favor. "These schools like Locke and Fremont and Jordan, they just get the leftovers," Cubias said. Locke would have substitutes covering unfilled teaching positions well into the school year. New hires were often uninspiring and unprepared. "Damn the day the University of Phoenix started offering teaching credentials," he added.
In the spring of 2007, a rumor spread through the school. Teachers and parents were summoned to a community meeting at the middle school down the street. The room was packed. Cubias took a seat near the front. The superintendent at the time got up to speak. He said that the district was interested in handing over leadership of Locke High School to a charter organization, Green Dot.
For Cubias, this was worse than neglect--to be abandoned by the district and relegated to some white guy he'd never met. "We'll see about that," he said.
The sudden announcement stunned United Teachers Los Angeles, the neighborhood, and Locke's staff, even the principal. Almost immediately, the superintendent began shying away from the deal. Barr had learned by now to have a backup plan ready. If the district refused to give him Locke, he'd just open a bunch of Green Dot schools in Watts and take the kids.
Green Dot had become more professional since Barr's early days at Animo Leadership. But it had also become more radical. When case-study writers from Harvard Business School asked Barr to describe the inspiration behind Green Dot's model, he didn't cite other schools; he named the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He hired an opposition researcher to investigate Green Dot and see what enemies might use against him. He started a citywide group called the Los Angeles Parents Union, an activist alternative to the Parent-Teacher Association, in the hope of mobilizing foot soldiers for Green Dot's escalating war against the district. He even put a school-board member on his payroll--"a mole," Barr said--to report back on closed meetings. Judged purely on test scores, or scholastic reputation, another group, Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, is probably the premier charter-school-management organization in Los Angeles. "They're brilliant about academics," Barr said. But, as a political organization that happens to run great schools, Green Dot is unique.
As Barr became more political, he began to worry about the limits of the charter movement. "There's this cult around charter schools," Barr said. "They're not even close to being the answer." Opening a new school like Animo Leadership takes an enormous amount of effort and money. Barr has to find a big building in the right neighborhood, and convert it into classrooms, and fill it with new teachers and administrators, and sell the idea to parents and community leaders. This is all before any public dollars arrive. Four years after Barr started Animo Leadership, he had a nice school of about five hundred students. But that barely registered in a district with around seven hundred thousand. Barr began to covet district schools with thousands of students. (Locke had almost three thousand.) "We were trying to figure out how to get out of the charter-school business, and how to get into the helping-schools-transform business," he said.
Barr tested a new strategy at Jefferson High School, a place that is much like Locke, a few miles to the north. In 2005, over the course of a year, he met with the superintendent to try to negotiate a deal to transform the institution into a series of small autonomous schools. When talks broke down, Barr hired a field staff from the neighborhood. They worked out of a housing project across the street from the school and collected ten thousand signatures from local parents. When the district still balked, Barr gathered a thousand parents and marched to L.A.U.S.D.'s central office, towing the paperwork for five new Green Dot schools in little red wagons. Jefferson remained an L.A.U.S.D. school. But the following fall more than half of its incoming freshmen entered the lottery for a spot at one of Barr's schools. "When Green Dot was able to walk into a neighborhood, build strong coalitions with neighborhood groups, and begin to drain the school, I think that sent a shock wave through the system," Ted Mitchell, the president of the State Board of Education, said.
Barr was ready to do the same thing at Locke. "What I didn't foresee was the teachers rising up," he said. A group from the school--Zeus Cubias and a few others--sent word that they wanted a meeting. Barr agreed to meet them at a nearby community center. Fifty or sixty teachers sat on one side, in a semicircle; Barr sat alone, facing them.
"Locke is a cash cow," he explained to them. It attracted more state and federal funding than schools in richer neighborhoods--"money-that's-thrown-at-a-failed-school kind of money," he said. "According to our analysis, only about sixty per cent of that money makes it into the classroom."
A gigantic district like L.A.U.S.D. has layer upon layer of bureaucracy. Locke had two full-time employees who painted over graffiti. Bathroom monitors were contractually limited to bathroom-related supervision. Locke often came in well under budget, yet students still shared textbooks, because the surplus was locked up in some unnecessary line item. Byzantine chains of accountability made it almost impossible to isolate problems and fix them.
"There was yelling back and forth," Barr said. "A lot of the time I just sat there, let them work their shit out. A young Latino math teacher, big guy, fucking six foot five, he broke down and started crying." The teacher feared that although Green Dot might get more kids to college, the most vulnerable kids, the hardest cases, might slip away. It's a big knock against charter schools--sometimes fair, sometimes unfair--that only a traditional public school teaches all kids. "We bombarded him," Cubias said. Barr came back with the same answer again and again: "How will it be worse than what you have now?"
Even if they agreed about the district's ills, many teachers worried about Green Dot's contract. At around thirty pages, it would be only a tenth as long as their contract with L.A.U.S.D. "Union contracts are written in response to bad systems," Barr said. (A. J. Duffy, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, counters, "Our view of a decent contract is it will provide longevity of teaching staff." Too many charter schools, he argues, churn through young teachers.) Green Dot offered no tenure and no lifetime benefits. But salaries would be about ten per cent higher; it spends more than sixty per cent of its staff budget on teacher salaries, a good deal more than L.A.U.S.D., Green Dot claims. Green Dot's union--affiliated with the statewide teachers' association rather than with the more defensive one in Los Angeles--would protect them from arbitrary dismissal. And Barr promised teachers more freedom in the classroom. At his schools, the principals lay out firm curricular guidelines, in keeping with California state standards and Green Dot benchmarks, but teachers are free to huddle, and decide what to teach and how to teach it, for the most part, as long as students pass quarterly assessments.
"After about five and a half hours, one teacher said, 'Let's face it, the only time the district comes out here is when a kid gets killed,' " Barr recalled. "Another teacher said, 'And the only time our union comes out is when Green Dot's mentioned.' Somebody said, 'What can we do?' "
Barr explained that California lawmakers had created an option for schools to abandon the district for a charter arrangement if at least fifty per cent of tenured teachers vote to secede. "We'd be interested in that," Barr said.
Barr had a stack of petition forms sent to the school. Cubias, an English teacher named Bruce Smith, and the principal, Frank Wells, began circulating them. Barr wasn't sure he had the votes. Locke's young teachers were mostly untenured and ineligible. The older faculty tended to be deeply skeptical of what Barr was selling. "A lot of these teachers have been on the front lines during the whole demise of our public education system," he said. "Now, every year or two, there's some new reform. You get reform fatigue: 'Oh, God, another God-damned bright idea from the business world.' " Out of a total tenured faculty of seventy-three, Barr needed thirty-seven votes to take the school. That meant all the eligible younger teachers and a decent number of the older ones. Smith and Wells started canvassing between bells. "It was a sneaky inside job, but there was no other way to do it," Smith said.
District administrators were furious. They sent school police to find Wells and escort him off school property. But it was too late: Barr's allies had the signatures. Two days later, television crews gathered across the street for a press conference. Kids milled around and stared. Smith sneaked into a bathroom to write a speech. "I've got security guards carrying walkie-talkies, saying, 'He's walking down the hall,' " Smith recalled. "I'm pretty nervous." He hid in a stall, and scribbled notes for his remarks on an index card: "Do what we're doing: take back your schools."
Within days, the district and the teachers' union counterattacked. "To take over a whole school--it was scandalous!" Karen Wickhorst, a French teacher and, at the time, a site representative for United Teachers Los Angeles, recently recalled. "A big public school! It was so underhanded."
The district banned Barr from the school and summoned teachers to a meeting. Duffy, the union president, and the district's regional administrator addressed the teachers. "They scared the shit out of everyone," Barr said. Seventeen teachers revoked their signatures.
Barr set up a war room at Green Dot's offices. He wrote the number "17" on a whiteboard. Organizers mapped out the teachers who had rescinded their votes--their issues, their biases--as well as new teachers they might swing. "It was like chasing down Senate votes," Barr said. He got up at five, and met teachers at a doughnut shop before school. He went to their houses for dinner, and showed up at church on Sunday. Allies would sneak him onto the school grounds through a back gate, and he'd hold court in a gym teacher's office.
They got all seventeen votes back--but not one more. And Barr began to look ahead. "After the press conference, a dozen different schools contacted me," he said. They were ready to lead their own insurrections. "If I'd been prepared, I could have run the table," Barr said.
Some of his closest confidants, though, worried that even one big high school might be too many. "Most people around him, including me, said, 'Oh, man, Locke is going to kill you,' " Reed Hastings, of Netflix, said. "Creating new schools is easy politics. It's ribbon-cutting, it's new opportunities. Taking over a school--it's district property, those are union jobs. I was afraid he would put in a lot of effort and not succeed. Or he'd get the conversion done and the difficulty of running the school would overwhelm him. And if he did a bad job it would be a black mark for everyone."
A tall girl, her hair pulled back tightly in a ponytail, reached up to tape a bright hand-painted poster ("Valentines Day Candygrams") above a row of lockers.
"You're showing your butt crack," a boy walking by said.
"So? Everyone has one."
"Idiot." She rolled her eyes. The boy looked back over his shoulder and grinned.
Locke's hallways are now filled with these handmade signs--for dances, tryouts, movie nights, college tours. They used to be banned; kids would vandalize them. Instead, there was graffiti. "Everywhere you walked," Shannan Burrell, a junior, said. "About six out of ten, it was gang tags."
Shannan is curvy and baby-faced, with rosy brown skin. Her hair was in a bright-purple wrap. She lived nearby, with her mother, in a yellow house, close enough to walk to school in the morning (keeping quiet, looking straight ahead) but outside Locke's immediate neighborhood, which was a good thing. "It's dirty," she said. "Gangbangers out 24/7." She wears a necklace that spells out the name "Jerome" in curling, glittering script. He was her best friend, before he was shot and killed around the corner, when she was in ninth grade. "It was random," she said softly. "He was a schoolboy, for real."
When she entered Locke, three years ago, she liked it. "It was fun--wandering around the halls, around the campus," she said. "Just wilding out." She'd drop into classroom after classroom, looking for friends. "Like 'Come outside real quick,' " she said, laughing. "Quick" usually meant for the rest of class. "And we wouldn't just go to our lunch--we'd go to all of them," she said. "Why are we going to go to class if nobody ever says nothing?" But in her sophomore year she started getting in fights. "I felt like, at Locke, you have to earn your reputation," she explained. "And I earned mine, after like my third fight. But then, after that, it seemed like girls wanted to challenge me. So it got worse." She fought once or twice a week. Her grades were terrible.
She was eating with the football players, in the shade of the quad's only tree, when the riot began. Suddenly, everyone around her was fighting. A boy she'd never seen before punched her. "I wanted to cry, bad," she said. "But it ain't inside me to cry." Instead, she fought back. A few weeks later, she left her mother's house and moved in with her adult sister, about an hour away. But in the fall she decided to go back to Locke. She'd heard that there were going to be changes.
Old-timers and union loyalists who left Locke after the takeover insisted that Green Dot would find a way to weed out problem kids. Others, such as Cubias, worried that uniforms and the promise of tougher discipline would simply keep bad kids away. But teachers and administrators went out into the neighborhood to visit hundreds of parents and students and encourage them to reënroll. Eighty-five per cent of Locke students returned. (In a normal year, only seventy per cent would come back from summer break.) That meant hundreds more than either Green Dot or the city had projected.
"When I got to school, I was laughing at everyone else--I was, like, 'Ha, you got on a uniform,' " Shannan said. "They're, like, 'Ha, you got on a uniform, too!' " Green Dot split the incoming ninth grade into five new small schools, like the schools around Jefferson. Three of them ended up in buildings off campus; the other two were in Locke's prefabricated units, walled off by tall black fences. Then they split the upper three grades into two academies, one for each wing of Locke's original building. Each school had its own bell schedule, its own lunch period, its own entrance, and its own color polo shirt. Shannan drew white.
Locke's teachers were all dismissed and asked to reapply. Only about thirty per cent got their jobs back. Shannan's English teacher, Mr. Sully, was one of them. "He just, he a nice teacher," she said. "He keep you on your toes. If you ain't doing something, he'll make you do something." Dozens of kids told me this--that teachers make them do stuff now, whether they want to or not. Almost immediately, Shannan stopped ditching. For one thing, she couldn't get away with it anymore. ("They don't play," she said.) She stopped fighting, too.
Sully passed a new novel out to Shannan's class--"a book called 'The Bluest Eye,' " Shannan said. She was unimpressed with the cover and the first page. "I was like, 'Mr. Sully, this book about to be stooopid.' And he said, 'What did I say?' And I said, 'O.K., I won't use "stupid," but this book is about to be not interesting.' He sat me down and had a strong conversation with me." She agreed to give it a few pages. Then the character Claudia, a fighter, made her first appearance. "I hear her talk about beating up a girl name Rosemary, a little white girl. I was like, 'Oh, I'm going to read this!' " She giggled. "It's turned out to be a good book," she said. "That's the funny thing."
"There is no secret curriculum-and-instruction sauce at Green Dot at all," Don Shalvey said. "Steve hires good people. They're just doing old-school schooling."
Shannan doesn't like every class. Physics, she said, is boring. So is a test-preparation and college-readiness class, mandatory for most Green Dot students. But she tries to do the work now. When I asked her why, she thought about it for a long time. "Honestly, it didn't matter how you did before," she said. "Wasn't nobody really looking at Locke kids"--meaning to go to college. That's not true, of course, but it felt true to Shannan. "Now, if I make a bad grade, I'm like, 'Please, can I make it up?' "
There are problems that Green Dot can't fix on its own, however. According to Cubias, at least forty per cent of Locke's students come from single-parent households. "Another fifteen per cent are in foster care," he said. Green Dot requires parents to get involved at school, a minimum of thirty-five hours a year, but they can't make every parent a good influence. (Recently, after a girl tangled with a classmate, an assistant principal called the girl's mother, and when the woman showed up she started screaming at the other student.) Security can stop neighborhood gangs from tagging the halls or hoisting couches up to Locke's roof, which was a hangout last year, but they can't keep gangs out of kids' lives.
I made plans to attend classes with Shannan the next day, but when I arrived at her first-period class, English with Mr. Sully, she wasn't there. I called her house after school. The phone line was dead. (Her mother, a quiet, serious woman, has been out of work for at least two years. Her father has been in jail since around the time Shannan was a toddler.) When we finally talked, her voice was so flat that I didn't recognize it.
"I'm not going to be in school this week," she said. "I have to take care of family business."
"Did someone get hurt?" I asked.
"Was it a car accident or something?"
"Much worse," she said. "It's not something I want to talk about." Several days passed before she returned to classes.
There remain problems to address inside Locke, too. Fall semester was difficult. "We made so many mistakes," Cubias said. September was almost wholly devoted to coping with the crush of unexpected students. Administrators struggled to find good teachers who were still on the job market. Clubs and activities suffered. "It's hard to see incremental changes," a new principal, Veronica Coleman, said. "That turned into some low-level frustration for both students and teachers."
Sully told me that Locke is significantly calmer, and administrators are more present. And Green Dot got rid of the teachers who did little for students. But the takeover also chased away some good, experienced staff. Locke's overwhelmingly new and mostly young faculty members are learning how to work together. Sully still has problems with chronic truancy. He still sees kids out of uniform. And when Locke's test scores, their first since the takeover, come back this fall they are almost certain to be the lowest among Barr's schools. Sully guesses that the school might see a small bounce, but anything more than that would surprise him. Kids in Locke's upper grades have spent as many as three years in one of the city's worst academic environments. And, for the first time at a Green Dot school, there is no lottery process for admission. There is no waiting list. Locke is serving every kid in the neighborhood, including ones whose parents, in another neighborhood, would never research alternatives to the big traditional school. "Every child who is in his other schools is there because they have an advocate," Cortines said. "Not so at Locke. They took the whole population."
Even security remains a challenge. Green Dot blanketed the schoolyard with guards from a private security firm, club-bouncer burly, carrying handguns and pepper spray. Gangs have nowhere near the profile they once did, and fights, once a daily occurrence, are rare. Still, in mid-April, a student was shot, across the street, just before first period. And guards have occasionally displayed a heavy hand. Twice this year, they pepper-sprayed students; in both cases, Cubias said, they should have been able to cool the kids down before it came to that, but they were trained to secure facilities, not to supervise adolescents.
Yet, when I wandered around campus during lunch periods and between classes, looking for disgruntled kids, I never found any.
"The whole atmosphere is different," a Latino boy, sketching graffiti in a notebook, said. "The teachers pay more attention to you."
"You actually get through the lessons you're supposed to get through," Jamie, an African-American girl with straightened swept-back hair, said, as she picked at French fries with her friend Andrea.
"I noticed that, too," Andrea said.
"Last year, my grades got so bad--I got four D's! My will to get good grades improved," Jamie said.
"Will Locke be perfect?" Cortines asked. "I don't care. If they make mistakes, they'll find a way to do things differently. What we do in regular schools is keep doing the same thing, even if it doesn't work."
Barr is always talking about "the tribes." Union leaders and reformers, in his view, spend too much time fighting one another instead of finding common interests. Charter groups and unions agree on limiting central bureaucracy, giving teachers fewer students and more freedom, and concentrating funds in the classroom, but they mostly go at each other over tenure and the right to unionize. Ultimately, Barr's project isn't about fixing one broken school; he thinks he can resolve that impasse. His grander ambitions, as much as Green Dot's experience in Watts, are what brought him to Arne Duncan's office in March.
Duncan asked Barr what it would take to break up and remake thousands of large failing schools. "One, you have to reconstitute," Barr told him--that is, fire everyone and make them reapply or transfer elsewhere in the district. "Arne didn't seem to flinch at that," he said. "Second, if we can figure out a national union partnership, we can take away some of the opposition." Duncan asked Barr if he could persuade Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, to support the idea. "I'd love to do that," she told Barr, but she also expressed concerns. "She said, 'I can't be seen as coming in and firing all these teachers.' " So they talked about alternatives, like transferring teachers or using stimulus money for buyouts.
Cortines has also agreed in principle to a partnership in Los Angeles. "We'll find out very quickly what he thinks a partnership is," Barr said. "I think a partnership is Locke, period." Federal money, Barr noted, and an alliance with the national union "will force Mr. Duffy"--the U.T.L.A. president--"to come along." Green Dot could take over as many as five Los Angeles schools in 2010, and maybe more.
This month, Barr expects to meet again with Weingarten and her staff and outline plans for a Green Dot America, a national school-turnaround partnership between Green Dot and the A.F.T. Their first city would most likely be Washington, D.C. "If we're successful there, we'll get the attention of a lot of lawmakers," Barr said.
There are risks for Barr in this kind of expansion. It will be months, and maybe years, before there's hard evidence about what Green Dot has accomplished at Locke. And that one takeover put a real strain on the organization. "If they were to take over another high school in Los Angeles, they could handle that," Steve Seleznow, the deputy director of education for the Gates Foundation, said. "I'm not sure they have the capacity to do five at once." Then he paused. "I'm sure Steve has the appetite for it," he added, and laughed. Barr's impatience and his willingness to overextend himself are a bigger part of Green Dot's institutional culture than any theory of education.
In the meantime, Barr and his supporters continue to campaign. On a recent morning, outside 135th Street Elementary School, in Gardena, near Watts, a gregarious woman with a streak of gray through her black curls, wearing a Los Angeles Parents Union sweatshirt, passed a sheet of paper to a young Latino man in a Sears Appliance Repair jacket. He was accompanied by two little girls with matching Hannah Montana backpacks. "Would you like to sign a petition to transform Perry Middle School and Gardena High School?" she asked. She waved down a car that showed no sign of stopping, and bent over at the window when it did. "Do you have time to sign my petition to transform Perry Middle School and Gardena High School?" she asked. Immediately, the driver pulled over. Organizers are now in many neighborhoods, targeting elementary schools, telling parents that they have time to blow up and rebuild their middle schools and high schools before their kids enroll.
Everyone signed up. It's like that whenever she goes out. "People know something is wrong," she told me. "But they think it's their kids. Or it's their neighborhood. Or it's because they're poor. If we have to, we'll build a whole bunch of little charters around the school and take the students," the woman said, loud enough for half the block to hear. "We're going to get the change one way or another."