When Stephen Minix decided to become an inner-city high school teacher, he enrolled in Pepperdine University's Graduate School of Education and Psychology to learn the skills of the trade. But not even the best teacher-training program could have prepared him to work in a school in as much disarray as Los Angeles's Alain Leroy Locke Senior High School, Minix says. Opened in the late 1960s a few years after the Watts riots and named after the first black Rhodes scholar, Locke was once a source of pride for its community. But by 2006, the school had devolved into a dumping ground for the Los Angeles Unified School District's most emotionally troubled and academically challenged students.
Los Angeles is informally known as the nation's gang capital, and the halls of Locke were no different from the city streets. Local gangs controlled the school, Minix says, and arson as well as fights between rival gang members was standard fare for the school day. Casualties of the arson included Locke's concession stand for athletic events, which burned to the ground, and its auditorium, which is still too damaged by smoke and water to be used. "The kids were trying to get someone to pay attention to them, and the teachers were failing them. And I include myself in that group," Minix says. "At the time, many teachers didn't know how or realize it was even possible to regain control of the school and the students."
That's where Steve Barr comes in. Barr founded Green Dot Public Schools in 1999 with the mission of transforming secondary education in Los Angeles. He comes from a long background of service, cofounding Rock the Vote in 1990 and hosting President Bill Clinton's national service inaugural event that led to the creation of Americorps, a national, federally funded volunteer organization. Barr taught Minix and his colleagues to think differently about Locke's potential.
"Teach them all." A little-known California law allows a public school to become a privately operated, publicly funded charter school if more than 50 percent of the tenured teachers vote in favor of the switch. Convincing Minix and scores of other skeptical teachers that such a radical change was a good idea, in 2008 Barr took control of Locke and its millions of dollars in federal Title I funding, which goes to schools with high percentages of low-income children. What was once a poorly run school for thousands of students with a graduation rate of just 5 percent is now the Locke Family of Schools, made up of eight small college-prep academies and one technical school. In the brief time since the Green Dot takeover, graduation rates and state test scores have already improved, and student suspensions and expulsions are down. "We didn't get rid of the knuckleheads and the gangbangers—we figured out a way to teach them all," says Minix, who now serves as the Locke Family of Schools' athletic director.
Proving that students who have failed in overcrowded, low-performing public schools can achieve in the more intimate environment of charter schools has become Barr's mission. And through Green Dot schools, Barr has begun to change the way these kids learn. Because of small classes and excellent teachers who give students as much personal attention as they need, Green Dot students' scores on state assessments are nearly 19 percent greater than their local public school peers. The average graduation rate at Green Dot schools is 81 percent, compared with less than 50 percent at regular L.A. public schools.
Because of the impressive gains made by some charter school students across the country, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is encouraging states to support charter school growth. But not all charters help students achieve gains on par with Green Dot's. A recent study by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes shows that just 17 percent of the nation's charter schools provide education superior to that of traditional public schools. And some states do a poor job of holding failing charters accountable, the study finds. Duncan has taken note of that, calling on states to enforce more rigorous standards of accountability and to shutter charters that chronically fail.
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.