By guest blogger Lesli Maxwell
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."
See Lesli's full post on Barr's projects on the District Dossier blog.