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Could There Really Be a Green Dot America?

May 5th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


The May 11 New Yorker Magazine has a profile of Steve Barr and his Green Dot Charter Schools.

It’s a very intriguing story, but it is hidden behind a registration wall open only to subscribers for the moment, so a full link will have to wait.

Yet there is one interesting piece of news
I fished out from behind the wall that is worth noting right now. It is the following:

Around a month and a half ago, Steve Barr got a call from the new U.S. Secretary of Education
, Arne Duncan, suggesting a meeting. Barr flew to Washington D.C. for a meeting he figured would be little more than professionally social. “At the meeting,” reports the New Yorker, “Duncan revealed that he was interested in committing several billion dollars of education stimulus package to a Locke-style takeover and transformation of the lowest-performing one percent 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.”

When the conversations continued, Barr began to at least contemplate
the wild notion of a Green Dot America.
As we talk about the issues of layoffs and teacher tenure (and the problems of Crenshaw High School noted in the post above) this story about the Green Dot charter model seems particularly timely.

Here’s the abstract for the rest of the article. (And I’ll link to the full story when it becomes available.)

Two years ago, Steve Barr asked the Los Angeles Unified School District (L.A.U.S.D.) to give his charter-school management group, Green Dot Public Schools, control of Alain Leroy Locke High School, near Watts, California, 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.

Locke reopened in September, four months after a riot had paralyzed it, as a half-dozen Green Dot schools. “It’s night and day,” said Ramon Cortines, L.A.U.S.D.’s new superintendent. 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 L.A., 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 arrive, in most cases, far below grade level and send nearly eighty per cent of them to college. Barr has a colorful reputation. He’s built Green Dot to be a political actor unlike anything else in the world of education, and he runs the only large charter organization in the country that has embraced unionized teachers and a collectively bargained contract.

Photo by Frank Perez / The Detroit News

Posted in Education, Green Dot, LAUSD | 20 Comments »

20 Responses

  1. reg Says:

    I haven’t read this report yet, but it’s an interesting development:

    (I have a New Yorker sub but I hate their “digital reader”, so I won’t read the Green Dot article until my copy arrives by snail mail. I think we need charter schools in the education reform mix, but frankly some of them are scams and need to be shut down. I know this as fact in Oakland – some do end runs around standards and operate as personal feifdoms for egomaniacs. But the general landscape of public schools is so fucked – for a set of reasons that are far more complicated than the “perfidy” of teachers unions as many ideological hacks would have it – that we need charter experiments that can lead with innovation where they are serious and show real promise. Apparently Greendot fits this model. Look forward to reading the piece.)

  2. Woody Says:

    C: As we talk about the issues of layoffs and teacher tenure

    A solution for schools with bad teachers? Fire them but keep paying them as though they were still working! Where does this brilliant policy exist? New York City.

    The New Republic
    School’s Out Forever

    It would seem like a pretty good gig: About 1,400 teachers in New York City are receiving full salaries and benefits even though they don’t have permanent jobs. Two hundred and five of them have been without full-time work for three years. And they can continue receiving payments indefinitely even if they never secure new positions.

    These educators are members of what is called the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR), a program in which unionized teachers are placed when they don’t have jobs. …And they are not required to seek full-time positions. …I’m happy now,” one such teacher told TNTP researchers. “I don’t have to prep, I don’t have to grade tests, I don’t have my own class. I don’t really have to do anything.” ….

  3. reg Says:

    This is a very useful blog by NYC teachers for anyone who is truly interested in the issues related to teaching and schools. I found it by googling some followup to the TNR story Woody linked, and of course his characterizations are mostly false and the issue is more complex than the article linked. I lost those specific links, but I don’t really give a shit about engaging the resident troll on the facts of ATR, which he almost completely misstated (overwhelmingly, the ATR pool works full-time as subs, etc.) For anyone else, who is sane and actually gives a shit about issues, I’ll recommend this blog:

  4. reg Says:

    Just got my print New Yorker – Yippeee!!

  5. Celeste Fremon Says:

    Cool site, reg. And, yeah, I hate the New Yorker’s freaking digital reader too. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t loathe it.

  6. reg Says:

    This was a great article – the best thing (i.e. the most hopeful) I’ve read on possible new directions for deucation reform I’ve read to date. (I’m going to email the New Yorker and ask that it be put online – it’s too important to exist behind the NYer’s wall.)

    I’m skeptical of “solutions” that involve heroes. Heroes are great, but they aren’t the answer to most intractable problems. I’m also skeptical of education reform or innovation (like most charter schools) that posit the teachers’ unions as the problem. Teachers unions reflect many of the problems of the system – and have some of those problems embedded in their culture) but any effective broad-based reform is going to have to include them. Barr’s genius is that his “heroics” aren’t limited to setting up a model school, but that looks to transforming the system itself on a large scale. And he’s talking to the unions – and including unionization – as part of his strategy. I’m also skeptical of charters in that they tend to be the essence of “self-selection” for students and parents, and Barr seems to also understand this as an inherent weakness (or “false strength”) that he’s not going to use as his means of achieving real results in the real world of environoments and local cultures that totally undermine any efforts to edcucate today’s complicated mix of young people who enter the school system with quite a few strikes against them and quite a few strikes against any teacher who isn’t extraordinarily adept at gaining their attention and respect. This reality isn’t “fair” to any of the stakeholders in the current educational system – students with a host of problems and limited attention spans or teachers who are tasked with the near impossible. Again, Barr seems willing to confront the real world head -on.

    I’m also skeptical of “top-down” reformers like Michelle Rhee in DC. Again, Barr appears to offer a “bottoms-up” approach that is more realistic and, ultimately, less presumptuous and authoritarian. If simply hiring a strong-willed superintendant was the solution, a lot of districts would already be “reformed.” Again, I think this approach is unrealistic and probably doomed.

    Obama and Arne Duncan deserve kudos for looking to Green Dot as a large-scale, national model for “blowing up” a significant sector of the worst, underperformong schools. Probably the most significant move in education reform we’ve seen to date.

    Incidentally, the LAUSD seems like one of the most fucked organizations in the developed world and should probably be broken up just for starters. LA is lucky to have a guy with Barr’s energy, resolve and smarts taking this behemoth on. Teachers who care should welcome Barr’s efforts – and he seems to have established the kind of track record, openness and alternative approach that they can embrace.

    Great piece – Green Dot deserves a very serious book-length treatment so that as much as can possibly be learned from their example becomes central to public discourse on education reform.

  7. alexander Says:

    good post, celeste —

    the huffington post has my reactions to the piece, including some key things that i think the new yorker got wrong.

    in case anyone’s interested:

    oh, and there’s an online copy of the article at new america:


  8. Celeste Fremon Says:

    Thanks, Alexander. That link is a help. (And good column.)

  9. reg Says:

    Wow – this guy’s writing the book that I would like to see.

  10. CarolineSF Says:

    I have some further perspective:

    …the article reports: “Green Dot [has] blanketed the school with guards from a private security firm, club-bouncer burly, carrying handguns and pepper spray. … Guards have occasionally displayed a heavy hand. Twice this year, they pepper-sprayed students…”

    I wonder what public commotion would ensue if private security guards at a public school repeatedly pepper-sprayed white middle-class students – but oh well, these are only poor minorities. And the outcry would probably be considerable if Unified hired the security guards too, but charter-school Teflong protects Green Dot.

    And I’ll bet my firstborn that if Green Dot owns up to two pepper-spraying incidents, there have been far more. Gosh, how idyllic. And critics call KIPP the “Kids in Prison Program” — Green Dot is certainly mounting a challenge for that title. I know; the supporters’ view is: whatever works. Don’t tase me, bro!
    This snippet also caught my eye: [Barr] “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.”

    “Escalating war against the district.” Gee, that’s good for our kids and schools. And is it actually legal to pay a school board member to reveal information about closed sessions? Whatever works.

    If this experiment succeeds, great, and we’ll all learn a lot. Perhaps this will be the one that will transform urban public education. Will it show us that what all our schools need is to be blanketed with burly private security guards carrying handguns and pepper spray? And wage escalating wars against our school districts? What a cheering scenario. Whatever works.

  11. reg Says:

    So having gangs run amok was better for the students ? Give me a break…

  12. reg Says:

    I also have to say that the article linked was not reporting or analysis but surmise, “some say” and snark.

  13. Celeste Fremon Says:

    Reg, I really enjoyed your detailed responses to the New Yorker story. And, yes, after reading Alexander’s stuff, it seems like exactly the right person is doing a book on Green Dot and the Locke takeover.

    Caroline, if you life in Southern California (Or does SF mean San Francisco?), or get down here from time to time, in that you’re clearly someone interested in education policy, I would respectfully suggest that you pay a visit to Locke and take a look around for yourself. Talk to kids. Ask them about the security guards—or whatever. Ask them about the difference with the school then and now.

    I think you would find that, based on some of the verbiage in the article, you are drawing conclusions that are not accurate.

    Green Dot is not perfect. No system is. But there’s so much about what Steve Barr is doing that is stupendously sane and genuinely effective for the kids Green Dot serves. You’re quite right; the original Green Dot charters are boutique schools. That’s why so many of us have been watching the Locke conversion with such intense interest. Locke, one of the four worst high school’s in the district, is a different animal, a hard core test of Green Dot’s methodology for many reasons, but high among them is the fact that, with Locke, there was no self-selecting into it. Locke had to take every kid.

    It is still early days, but so far Green Dot is passing the “test” in a most heartening fashion.

  14. CarolineSF Says:

    SF does mean San Francisco.

    My blog post (which is commentary and labeled as such) is based on the info in the New Yorker article, so my conclusions are based on what I read there — except my speculation that the number of tear-gassing incidents has been understated.

  15. reg Says:

    Since you worked as an editor for the SJMN and present yourself as an education activist, I’d like some more substantial reference than “critics say” as evidence that KIPP schools are run like prisons. Or even “kinda, sorta” like prisons. I would hope that as an editor you didn’t let reporters get away with that kind of lame, sock-puppet commentary.

  16. CarolineSF Says:

    Please read more carefully, because you waste everyone’s time when you miss so many points.

    I didn’t say KIPP schools are run like prisons. I said in passing that some critics refer to KIPP as the “Kids in Prison Program.”

    Here’s a quote from an article in the very same San Jose Mercury News and posted on KIPP’s own website:

    The tough-love discipline has led some to call KIPP the “Kids in Prison Program.”

  17. reg Says:

    Bullshit – you said “critics call KIPP the ‘Kids In Prison Program’” What does that suggest other than what I assumed, i.e. “prison-like”, because I was…uh…reading carefully the words you used ? The article you linked uses the “some say” locution that I find so irritating and so often in lazy journalism and commentary, but at least in the same paragraph it gives two examples of what “some” might consider over-the-top public shaming – along with the apparent fact that a lot of bad behaviour common in public schools is controlled effectively in KIPP. The conclusion I draw is that KIPP isn’t run like Summerhill, but that it’s offering an effective alternative for lots of kids whose only other choice was truly awful public schools. Oddly enough, I don’t find this disturbing.

  18. CarolineSF Says:

    Reg, you’re not getting it. My comment is exactly the same as the quote from an article that KIPP HAS POSTED ON ITS OWN WEBSITE, just in slightly fewer words:

    “The tough-love discipline has led some to call KIPP the “Kids in Prison Program.” “

  19. reg Says:

    I got it. You used that same line about KIPP- out of any context of the original article and without any reference – to promote some inferences about Green Dot’s security guards. The full article’s conclusions are quite different than the inference drawn from your lifting a single sentence out of the article – a sentence that wasn’t very good journalistically as originally written.

  20. Robert D. Skeels Says:

    @reg I’ve got some pretty good peer reviewed reports referenced in this essay about your beloved KIPP.

    I’m sure that anything that runs counter to your corporate narrative will earn me the some potty mouthed comments you aimed at Caroline. Best of luck serving your corporate overlords.

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