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Steve Barr's Quest to Save a New Orleans High School

Steve Barr, the colorful founder of unionized charter schools who shook up Los Angeles Unified several years ago with his brazen efforts to both compete and cooperate with the district to fix some of its worst schools, is now at work in New Orleans. (And in Los Angeles again, but more on that later in the blog post.)

Barr's Future Is Now Schools—a sort of national spinoff of the Los Angeles-focused Green Dot schools network that he started more than a dozen years ago—is midway through the first year of a rescue effort to save one of New Orleans' toughest high schools both pre- and post-Katrina, John McDonogh in the city's Treme neighborhood. I visited this school a handful of times during the first 18 months it was open following the hurricane. It was a deeply troubled place that I remember most for its fortification: metal detectors at every entrance and an abundance of security guards, many of whom appeared to be little older than the students.

In the five years since I reported at John Mac, the school churned through numerous principals, was barely mustering attendance of 50 kids a day, and was on the verge of being shut down by the Recovery School District. Barr, one of the few charter school operators in the country who has been willing to tackle the daunting task of turning around abysmal urban high schools, was asked to help out with other New Orleans high schools, but insisted on John Mac.

In 2007, while still running Green Dot, Barr mounted and won a knock-down, drag-out fight to win control over the similarly troubled Locke High School in the Watts community of Los Angeles by organizing teachers to support a conversion to a charter school. Green Dot began its overhaul of Locke in 2008 and while there have been some academic gains, along with other notable progress on safety and school culture, the turnaround effort there remains a work in progress. Barr left Green Dot in 2009.

To lead the John Mac revival, Barr said he did a national search before hiring Principal Marvin Thompson, a native of Richmond, Va., who had been working in North Carolina. Never one to shrink from the media spotlight, Barr also agreed to let television cameras closely document the first year at John Mac after getting the blessing from Thompson and the high school's faculty.

The first two episodes of "Blackboard Wars," recently aired on OWN, Oprah Winfrey's cable channel. The snippets I've watched are pretty grim—violence and post-traumatic stress issues are prominent—and don't offer much hope for an about-face in the first year, which Barr said is a realistic portrayal of urban high school turnaround.

Many of John Mac's students, Barr said, are overage and way behind in high school credits and a not-insignificant number of them have been put out of the city's numerous other charter schools.

"This first year is literally about getting the kids to even come to school," he said. "It's about changing the culture."

I chatted with him today shortly after he spent an hour on a radio call-in show in New Orleans defending his decision to let the cameras inside John Mac. Some students and community residents were not happy with the school's portrayal in the first two episodes, he said.

I asked Barr why he would even ask Thompson, who calls the John Mac assignment the biggest test of his career, to allow television cameras inside the school at such a delicate time.

"I thought it was important to put a window on school turnaround and demystify it," Barr told me in a phone interview. "This is the most important work and not enough people are doing it."

The docu-series will last at least six episodes and Barr insists that Thompson has the authority to pull the plug. He also said he won't lose teachers over it if it comes to that. "If two teachers come to me and say they would quit because if this, it would be an easy decision for me. We can't lose teachers over this." Barr said he's convinced that the power of the series stems from the stories of the John Mac students that the producers closely profile. "It becomes much more personal," he said.

While that quite-public undertaking unfolds in New Orleans, Barr is working in a more behind-the-scenes manner in Los Angeles (not his usual modus operandi) to get approval for "pilot schools" that he supports in the district. The pilot schools would have much of the same autonomy as charters, but would still in-district schools (so no drain on LAUSD's enrollment) that operate with a collective bargaining agreement, albeit a "thin contract." Several pilot schools already exist in Los Angeles. They were started about a decade ago by the United Teachers Los Angeles to be an alternative to charters and then expanded in the last four years, thanks mostly to the district's public school choice policy that allows charter operators, groups of teachers, the union, community groups, and others to compete for operating struggling district schools.

Barr, who sparred with previous schools Los Angeles schools chiefs when opening Green Dot charters, now has a strong ally in Superintendent John Deasy. This relationship has put Barr inside the district in a way that he hasn't been accustomed to. Another big difference this time around is that the pilot school endeavor so far is aimed at middle class communities. Green Dot schools operate in some of the city's most disadvantage neighborhoods.

He's also got a very personal interest: He doesn't like the middle and high school options currently available to his two children in Los Angeles. (The oldest is already in elementary school in the district.) The first pilot, called the Silver Lake Studio School, has been given the green light by the Los Angeles school board, Barr told me. Another pilot, for Venice, is still moving through the district's approval process.

Barr's pilot project involves a group of teachers who are active in UTLA as a reform caucus known as NewTLA. He said when they've gotten pushback from the union's leadership, he reminds UTLA that the charter proliferation is going to continue if the district keeps losing students and schools become underenrolled.

"I keep telling these guys, you can either do this or you are going to see charters eating up the district schools," he said.

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