As founder and chief executive of Green Dot Public Schools, the most prominent L.A. charter school operation, Steve Barr has become a major reformer within the Los Angeles Unified School District. In just over five years, Barr has opened 10 charter schools in some of L.A.'s most troubled neighborhoods. Charter schools receive public funds, but they are run as largely independent campuses, able to design their own curricula and sometimes hiring and firing teachers. As Barr's charter operation has expanded, he has run into opposition from district administrators and board members but has also become a beacon for reformers. Case in point, the foundation of billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad gave Green Dot $10.5 million last year to open up 20 more schools. Barr had never expected to have a career in education reform, though he always had been active in progressive politics, starting with his high school days in Cupertino, when he volunteered for Jerry Brown. After graduating from U.C. Santa Barbara with a political science degree, he did stints in the campaigns for Democratic presidential candidates and also worked in television. After the death of his brother and mother, though, he decided to focus on school reform. Barr, 47, lives in Silver Lake with his wife and toddler son.

Question: Why did you decide to get involved in the charter schools movement?

Answer: It all goes back to one day about 15 years ago, when I was in my early 30s. I was wrapped up in my career in the political world when I got a call that my brother had died of an apparent drug overdose. That set me thinking: "What was so different about our two lives?" One answer was education. When I looked at my brother, he had a lot to offer, but he was never given the chance at school. He wasn't given the amount of attention he needed to succeed.

Q: So how did the lives of you and your brother diverge in high school?

A: We had just moved to the Cupertino area and in high school, we were surrounded by the kids of Hewlett Packard engineers who felt college was an entitlement, not a dream. That rubbed off on me. But my brother didn't fit in as easily as I did. He got into trouble by doing too much drugs. He had to go into the U.S. Navy because a judge told him he either had to go into the Navy or go to jail. I never took any drugs. I went on to college. I drove a Volvo; he drove a motorcycle. After he left the Navy, he lost his leg in a motorcycle accident and got addicted again to painkilling drugs. He died of an accidental drug overdose.

Q: So that's when you decided to go into the education field?

A: Not immediately. Three years later, my mother died. She was a single mom who raised us while working as a waitress. So there I was, at the age of 39 and I had just buried my family. I found myself wondering what happened to these people that I loved so much? At that point, I decided I wanted to do something different with my life. And the schools that had so failed my brother were a good place to start.

Q: What had you been doing?

A: I really wanted to go into politics full-time (after college). But it was a difficult time to be a progressive in this country and I didn't buy into the Reagan-era propaganda. But then came a case of good timing. My first job right out of college was as an advance person for the U.S. Olympic Torch Relay Committee for the 1984 Olympics. I went to virtually every state in the nation and really got to see how people lived, especially in the South. I grew to love this country, despite what was happening in Washington. I kept a journal of my experiences. I submitted some of my journal entries to a publisher and they gave me a six-figure ($125,000) advance to turn the journal entries into a book.

Q: After your struggle through college, getting that advance must have seemed like a slice of heaven.

A: Yes, by the age of 25, I was a success, which in retrospect only served to point up the differences in my path and my brother's path. After the Olympic Torch Committee, I worked full-time in the political arena. I worked on the Gary Hart for President campaign in both 1984 and 1988. I campaigned for Bruce Babbitt and also for Michael Dukakis.

Q: What did you do for these campaigns?

A: I was an advance man, what they call a crowd-builder. My job was to find people mostly young people to come to rallies. I would go to a city several days ahead of the candidate.

Q: You also served a stint as a television news reporter on a show called "The Crusaders." How did that come about?

A: I sold a television show to Disney aimed at young voters and titled "Call to Action." Disney picked up the show and it was to air on KCAL (Channel 9 in Los Angeles). But Disney owned KCAL and was also trying to buy ABC. So the company froze all new productions for KCAL, including that show. They "lent me out," so-to-speak, for this show called "The Crusaders." I was like a young Gen-X reporter. I was making good money. However, then my mother died. I did some soul searching and I realized I felt unfulfilled.

Q: People have been trying for years to reform schools in California and here in L.A. What made you think you had something new to offer?

A: For years, the debate over schools basically fell into two camps: the Left was saying, "Give the schools more money," and the schools would show improvement; the Right was saying "Privatize the system and remove the unions." I felt there just had to be a "third way," one in which the money that was there could be spent more wisely and in which the unions could be given a buy-in.

Q: Why give unions a piece of the action?

A: Charter schools are not new, but until Green Dot, most charter schools have been non-union. Besides reaping an enormous amount of profit for the charter school operators who could pay non-union wages, this served to make instant enemies out of the teachers unions. But what if you could offer the teachers another choice, another union?

Q: But doesn't that raise the operating costs?

A: Ah, but that's where the decentralizing comes in. In most public school systems today, and especially at the L.A. Unified School District, at least a third and sometimes half of the money is taken off the top to support staff at central headquarters. But look at private schools, where all of the money stays on the campus. Private schools can pay their teachers more. Private schools also are smaller campuses, where there are higher expectations for the students.

Q: It must have been very tough to get this effort off the ground.

A: You're telling me. I started Green Dot in 1999 with $100,000 that I had saved in anticipation of making a down payment on a home. For the first three years, I took a vow of poverty. I had no salary and I operated the company out of a one-room office in Venice. I was working day and night trying to create these charter schools.

Q: What was the first big break?

A: Early on, I became friends with Reed Hastings, the Netflix founder who was one of the primary backers of the New Schools Venture Fund up in Silicon Valley. He gave us some money, which enabled us to keep going until we had set up our first school in central Los Angeles.

Q: How are the teachers reacting?

A: One of the biggest reasons teachers leave the profession is that in many public school districts, especially here in L.A., they don't have any say in what goes on right in front of them. All the decisions about what they teach and how they teach are made at headquarters. At Green Dot, teachers have a say in what gets taught and how they teach. That's why you've seen teachers sign all those petitions at Locke High School to join Green Dot instead of staying with the (Los Angeles Unified School) District.

Q: You've constantly tangled with the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest district in the country. Have things improved?

A: I am very optimistic. Monica Garcia, who was former school board President Jose Huizar's chief of staff, has always been in our corner. And Mayor Villaraigosa seems to be on our side. I don't want to pre-judge things at this point, given past experience. But one thing we've got going for us now that we didn't have before is our track record. We've got 10 schools now; for the ones that have been around long enough, the dropout rate is 15 percent or lower and the college acceptance rate is above 70 percent.

Q: How did you achieve this?

A: The key is focusing on the ninth grade. Our approach has been to break off the ninth grade into separate campuses like mini-schools. Then we put our best teachers there and focus on the basics, like making sure the students can read at a ninth-grade level. If we can get the kids through the ninth grade, then they rejoin the high school more confident and almost all of them finish.

Q: Where do you see all this going? Are you seeking to create a charter school empire?

A: No, that's not what we're about. I don't want to run a bunch of charter schools. What I really want to do is to create systemwide change within the LAUSD. Going into each high school and applying our model of smaller campuses, turning each one around in terms of performance, drop-out rates and college acceptance rates.

Q: What's the best piece of advice you've been given?

A: The best piece of advice came from a friend of mine, Don Shalvey, who heads up Aspire Public Schools. He said you have to drink with your teachers. Now he didn't mean get drunk with your teachers; rather, to spend time with them, listen to their concerns and try to understand them. After all, the teachers are the key to success in schools.

Q: With so many battles to wage and schools to manage, how do you find time for yourself and for family?

A: The truth be told, I really didn't take any time for myself in the first few years. Like any start-up, it was all work, all the time. I never even dated. But now that I've been fortunate enough to assemble a good management team, I can now take three nights a week with my family.

Q: How did you meet your wife?

A: I took a weekend off a few years ago to attend the Burning Man festival. And that's where I met Teresa. At the time, she was a reporter for National Public Radio covering the festival. She had just come from Alaska. We met and it was instantaneous. Four weeks later, we were married in Las Vegas. I bet you're asking how many months the marriage lasted. Well, it's five years later now and I've never been happier.

Steve Barr

Title: Founder, chairman and chief executive
Organization: Green Dot Public Schools
Born: San Mateo, 1959
Education: B.A., political science, University of California, Santa Barbara
Career Turning Point: Period of introspection after deaths of brother and mother
Most Influential People: Former California Gov. Pat Brown; Don Shalvey, co-founder and chief executive officer, Aspire Public Schools; mother, who raised him as single parent on waitress wages
Personal: Married to Teresa, a radio and
television correspondent; 18-month-old son. Lives in Silver Lake.
Hobbies: Occasional game of pick-up basketball; avid fan of Los Angeles Dodgers and team broadcaster Vin Scully

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