August 8, 2005
A Plan to Take Over Troubled School
A successful charter school operator will launch a campaign to take over the Los Angeles high school where racial tensions erupted into campus brawls earlier this year. The Journal has learned that Steve Barr, who runs Green Dot Public Schools will announce, later this week, his bid to assume control of troubled Jefferson High School in South Los Angeles.
The 45-year-old Barr, who is Jewish, makes a point of serving students in low-income minority communities, even though he knows his schools would enjoy a ready market and have access to considerable financial support in the heavily Jewish and more prosperous neighborhoods of the Westside and West Valley.
If the school board goes along -- and Barr already has some civic and political support -- Jefferson would be the first existing L.A. campus handed over to an outside company.
Private companies have taken over schools elsewhere in the country with mixed results. In Los Angeles, however, most of the recent charter schools have been "start-ups," that is, new schools that begin from scratch hiring teachers and recruiting students. Charter schools operate independently of established school systems, although school districts typically sponsor and supervise them. A Los Angeles public school has never been converted to a charter because it is failing or floundering or futile -- pick your adjective for Jefferson.
Jefferson High gained notoriety when a series of campus melees erupted starting in mid-April. In many of the fights, black students squared off against Latinos. Officers arrested two-dozen students; three students were hospitalized and dozens suspended or transferred. Hundreds more stayed away from campus. The situation was disturbing enough that Mayor-Elect Antonio Villaraigosa visited the campus to plead for calm. Even before the unrest Jefferson had problems enough, with a high dropout rate and poor student achievement.
The move represents a gamble for Barr, the founder of Green Dot. He has never assumed operation of an existing school, especially one where academic achievement has lagged for decades. Barr's first five charter high schools, all created over the last six years, have impressed many observers. His first school, in Lennox, which is south of Inglewood, has graduated 90 percent of its first two classes of students, said Barr, all of whom completed the coursework required to attend the University of California. L.A. Unified, by contrast, loses about half of its students as dropouts.
The Journal confirmed Barr's intentions with several sources familiar with his plans. Barr declined to be interviewed prior to Thursday's anticipated announcement, but confirmed the basic details. The plan has been in the works for weeks, but not widely known. In fact, late last week, one of the top aides to L.A. schools Superintendent Roy Romer was unaware of what was afoot. The superintendent's office has since been alerted. Barr was tentatively scheduled Tuesday to meet with and brief Mike Lansing, the school-board member who represents Jefferson.
If allowed to run Jefferson as he does his other schools, Barr would divide the campus into eight or nine schools. Teachers would lose tenure protection, but could not be fired without "just cause." Teaching staff also would have a central role in planning curriculum and purchasing instructional materials. The staff would not belong to United Teachers Los Angeles, the powerful L.A. teachers union, but could instead join the independent union that represents faculty at Barr's other schools. Teacher salaries would be 10 percent higher. Parents would be required to volunteer at the school. Staff currently at Jefferson, including the principal, would be invited to reapply for their jobs.
Barr plans to circulate petitions calling for the charter among teachers and residents in the neighborhoods surrounding Jefferson. He'd also need the support of four of seven board members. Unfortunately for him, he can't rely on board member David Tokofsky, because Tokofsky, a charter-school enthusiast, works part-time for Green Dot. Per board policy, Tokofsky cannot vote on a matter affecting Green Dot, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Two other board members, Julie Korenstein and Jon Lauritzen are generally more skeptical about charter schools. Barr has already met with school-board President Marlene Canter, who represents the Westside and who would be a key vote for him.
Barr would have to move quickly to make a changeover possible by next year. In the meantime, L.A. Unified is pursuing its own remedies at Jefferson. Officials have reduced the number of students attending Jefferson by sending many of them to a newly completed high school. And a well-regarded administrator, Juan Flecha, agreed to move from Eagle Rock High School to Jefferson.