Barr's mission emerged out of personal grief. He and his younger brother, Michael, grew up poor in a single-parent home. Like so many of today's students, Michael dropped out of high school, falling through the cracks of his large, impersonal institution. He died of a drug overdose at 32.
Getting bold. Barr's sorrow could have consumed him, but he chose instead to "get bolder" and to find out what urban high school students need not only to survive but to flourish. He visited L.A.'s best private schools and worst public schools and quickly realized that small schools that are filled with motivated, engaging teachers make a difference for students no matter their level of shyness, their command of English, or their skin color. These were private-school luxuries not afforded to the pupils at what Barr calls L.A.'s "dropout factories."
Barr opened his first Green Dot school in 2000 with five teachers who had never taught before. Nine years later, there are 19 Green Dot schools, and several of those made the U.S. News Americas Best High Schools list. All of the Green Dot schools are in the Los Angeles area except one in New York. That school is run through a partnership with the American Federation of Teachers, whose President, Randi Weingarten, is a big Green Dot supporter.
Unlike most charter school management organizations, whose leaders staunchly oppose teachers unions, Green Dot teachers are unionized. But one thing Green Dot teachers cannot bargain for is tenure. This is something that's inextricably linked to public school teachers unions, and often in a negative way. Though tenure's original intent was to give teachers their "day in court" if they felt they were unjustly dismissed, Weingarten says, many people now view tenure as an undeserved safety net that protects even burned-out, ineffective teachers from being fired. In Green Dot's New York school, teachers keep their jobs based on evaluations, not on the number of years of experience. And teachers also lobbied for provisions like standing professional development committees and caps on the number of students a teacher must see every day and every week, conditions that help Green Dot fill its classrooms with high-quality teachers, Barr says.
One downside of Green Dot is its limited scope. With only 19 schools and a focus on small classes and one-on-one instruction, not every child who wants to attend a Green Dot school can. Every school caps its incoming freshman class size at 140 students, though often hundreds more apply. To determine which students get in when there are too many applications, Green Dot holds a lottery.
Mary Najera's son Jerry was a troubled teenager in the Los Angeles public schools who had failed to graduate from middle school. Rather than hold him back, the L.A. school district was going to move him on into high school with his age group. When Najera heard of Green Dot and the small classes, uniform dress code, and personal attention that Oscar De La Hoya Animo school could offer her son, she jumped at the chance to include him in the admission lottery. Luckily, his name was called. Jerry graduated from Oscar De La Hoya with a grade-point average above 3.0, and he now attends California State University-Los Angeles. But one of Jerry's friends who also sought admission was not granted it. Instead, he enrolled at the public high school, the same one Jerry would have attended. He quickly dropped out and joined a local gang. While standing outside a rehabilitation facility where he was seeking advice on leaving the gang, he was shot and killed.
Jerry is just one success story that Green Dot is trying to replicate across Los Angeles. And others are taking notice around the country.