Monday, March 28, 2011


Alexander Russo | This Week in Education blog |

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March 28, 2011 | Posted At: 04:27 PM | Sam Dillon reported in Saturday’s New York Times [Charter School Champion Shifts Focus – follows] that Steve Barr's spinoff organization has now changed its name in order to clarify the legal and operational separation between Barr’s current work and Green Dot Public Schools, Barr’s original organization. Dillon describes Green Dot and Barr as “going through a divorce” and is kind enough to mention some of the uncomfortable dynamics that led up to the split that are described in my forthcoming book.

The story behind Barr and Green Dot parting ways is understandably fascinating to education watchers, who rarely get to see any of the internal strife and sausage-making that goes on behind the velvet school reform curtain communicated to them by the mainstream media and reformy blogs. But internal conflicts and partings of ways aren’t really all that unusual in education or other fields (think politics, business, or entertainment). Jon Schnur left New Leaders just a few months ago after having gone through a slew of senior staff over the years. Richard Colvin departed less than two years after having announced the “new” Hechinger Institute. Co-founders Tom Toch and Andy Rotherham fell out with each other and their board and left Education Sector after just four years. The CDF and the Forum have had a lot of turnover.  Tom Vander Ark and the Gates Foundation went their separate ways in 2007, after eight years together. 

The only thing particularly notable about the Barr/Green Dot split is how poorly covered and understood it was for such a long time -- and how long everybody seemed to leave it that way. Marco Petruzzi replaced Barr as CEO of Green Dot in the fall of 2008 and Shane Martin replaced him as board chair in 2009.  The organization formally known as Green Dot America never had much to do with the "real" Green Dot. But no one in the media or among any but the anti-reform bloggers seemed to grasp (or be willing to say out loud) what was happening, and Green Dot and Barr both seemed understandably content at the time to let the circumstances remain vague. [Much the same thing is happening now with Rhee and Klein, whose untimely dismissals are usually ignored in news stories and at conferences.]

The situation would have remained unclear for even longer but a recent NYT article about Barr’s possible expansion in NYC made apparent just how confused everyone was.  (A story in GothamSchools fails to explain the split or the rationale behind the renaming. [A union skeptic, converted by Steve Barr, befriends the UFT – following])

Friday's news was the signing of the final divorce papers after a long separation – and the beginning of what one hopes is a strong future for the work being done by Barr and Petruzzi.



The New York TimesBy SAM DILLON | NY Times |

March 25, 2011 - Green Dot, the schools group based in Los Angeles that challenged conventional practices by staffing its charter schools with unionized teachers, is going through a divorce with its founder, Steve Barr, who is leaving to build a new national charter group.

Monica Almeida/The New York Times  - Steve Barr in 2007 with charter school students in Los Angeles, where he founded the first group of Green Dot schools

On Friday, Mr. Barr and Shane Martin, the college dean who succeeded him as chairman of the Green Dot board in 2009, issued a joint statement announcing that Mr. Barr would no longer use the Green Dot name as he sought to open charter schools in New York and elsewhere.

The Green Dot organization will continue, under the leaders who have replaced Mr. Barr, to run its network of 16 charter schools in Los Angeles.

Mr. Barr’s exit left somewhat unclear the status of the Green Dot New York Charter School, which he helped organize in the Bronx in 2007 as a collaboration with the United Federation of Teachers.

Marco Petruzzi, who succeeded Mr. Barr as chief executive of Green Dot in 2008, said through a spokeswoman that Green Dot had provided curriculum and other educational services to the Bronx school and would continue to do so.

But Michael Mulgrew, the teachers’ federation president, said it would be up to the Bronx charter’s nine-member board of directors to decide whether the school’s future relationship would be with Mr. Barr’s group, or with Green Dot’s management.

Alexander Russo, the author of a coming book on the efforts of Mr. Barr and Green Dot to overhaul the troubled Locke High School in Los Angeles, said, “Steve is a hard-charging visionary, as many founders are, and as Green Dot got bigger, people struggled to find an appropriate place for him in the organization.”

In 2009, Green Dot reported to the tax authorities that an internal review had determined that Mr. Barr had charged more than $50,000 in expenses to Green Dot that were undocumented or unjustified, and he repaid the money.

Mr. Martin said that no evidence had ever surfaced of anything worse than accounting sloppiness, and that the embarrassment caused to Green Dot had nothing to do with Mr. Barr’s departure. Mr. Barr will continue as a member of Green Dot’s board, he said.

“We wish him all the best,” said Mr. Martin, who is a dean at Loyola Marymount University.

Green Dot is one of a dozen or so nonprofit, high-performing charter chains that focus on students from low-income families and have grown rapidly over the past decade with philanthropic financing. Most of the others, which include the Kipp Schools, with 99 schools in 20 states, and Achievement First, with 19 schools in Connecticut and New York, operate with largely nonunion teachers.

But Mr. Barr organized Green Dot schools to operate with flexible contracts for unionized teachers that allow management to seek schedule and other instructional changes not permitted in traditional union agreements.

For more than a year, Mr. Barr has been in discussions with school and union officials in several cities, exploring ways of extending his vision of overhauling schools nationwide.

He has been operating as Green Dot America, and recruited a six-member board for that organization that includes two other directors who also sit on Green Dot’s board: Susan Estrich, the prominent Los Angeles lawyer, and Jeff Shell, the president of programming for Comcast.

On Friday, Green Dot America changed its name to Future is Now Schools. Mr. Barr said the name was inspired by President Obama’s call in the State of the Union address to “win the future” by improving American education.

In an interview, Mr. Barr said that the use of the Green Dot name had become confusing as he sought to build the new organization, which he said would explore using a lot of technology in classrooms to augment traditional instruction in what he called a “hybrid model.”

He also hopes to start some charters in middle-class neighborhoods, while Green Dot focuses exclusively on schools serving low-income students, Mr. Barr said.

Mr. Russo’s book portrays Mr. Petruzzi, a former partner at the consulting firm Bain & Company, as a reserved, by-the-numbers executive, and Mr. Barr as more passionate about organizing teachers and working-class parents than about the details of managing a growing network of schools.

“From the start there had been tensions between these two strong personalities working in close proximity, one getting nearly all the public credit and the other working largely in the shadows,” the book says.



by Maura Walz | Gotham Schools |

March 25, 2011 - When Gideon Stein first picked up the 2009 New Yorker profile of California charter school leader Steve Barr, he put the article down without finishing it. The story was all about Barr’s decision to work with the teachers union rather than fight it.

Steve Barr argues that education activists need to move from campaigning to governing.>

“I was like, eh, how great can his schools be?” Stein, an entrepreneur and real estate developer based in Manhattan, recalled in an interview this week.

A board member of at one of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Charter Network schools, where teachers are determinedly not unionized, Stein didn’t believe that anyone working with a teachers union had a shot at turning a school around.

But at the urging of his family, he finished the piece and was so impressed that he asked Moskowitz to broker an introduction. Soon he flew to Los Angeles to visit Locke High School, the school that Barr’s group, Green Dot, took over in 2008. The trip was “transformative,” Stein said.

In Barr, he saw the solution to the problem that troubles many education philanthropists: Successful transformations urban and rural schools are too rare. They have not achieved “scale.”

“While I love my work with Eva, and I think Eva is just an unbelievable educator and advocate for children,” Stein said, “if you really want scale, I think you’re going to have to make some compromises.”

He asked Barr how he could help Green Dot’s mission of re-making schools in partnership with labor.

Now Stein is the president of Barr’s national organization, which changed its name today from Green Dot America to Future Is Now Schools. And he’s rejiggered his social calendar. “I’ve now had dinner and drinks with Randi 10 times in the last eight months,” he said, referring to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Winning the Future

Future is Now, whose name is a play on President Barack Obama’s charge to “win the future,” aims to spread the principles that have governed Barr’s schools in California and New York around the country. Those principles include a simplified teachers contract that trades higher pay for tenure and sets only class size, the length of the school day and year, salary and benefits. Barr said that he also aims to transform the learning experience through technology.

Stein and Barr want to start by expanding in New York City, where they are working with the United Federation of Teachers and the Department of Education on a plan to take over two struggling Bronx schools starting next year. The plan would test a model that has not yet been tried here: removing the schools’ principals and half their teaching staffs.

Barr argues that the path forward has to be endorsed by all sides in the education debate. In a sit-down interview with GothamSchools this week, he repeatedly declared his desire to “gather the tribes.” “We’re not going to solve this with this tribal warfare,” Barr said. “Not only is it boring — we’re not reaching kids.”

The challenge is to bring the positive changes that a small number of schools serving urban and rural students have achieved to the rest of the country. ”You can’t go into a 100 percent unionized industry with non-union labor,” he said.

Organizing parents to support his efforts is also central to the expansion, Barr said. For the two turnaround projects in the Bronx, Barr has promised to knock on every door in the communities where he is taking over schools in an effort to build parent support. He’ll lean on a veteran community organizer he and Stein have hired away from the SEIU for the effort, Mike Dolan.

But it’s far from clear that Barr’s attempt to replace the principal and half the staff of two schools won’t provoke an outcry similar to that sparked when the city has closed schools. Questions linger about the sustainability of Barr’s model, which has proven to be expensive in California. And already critics have grumbled that Barr, the city, and the union are proceeding with their negotiations without identifying the schools they are targeting to their staffs and parents.

(In our interview, Barr and Stein indicated that they had a high school in mind but wouldn’t name it.)

Working Together

The city’s teachers union, however, says it is committed to working with the organization. The two groups, along with the DOE, are already working to find common ground in an area where the city and the union have been stalled for months — a new evaluation system for the schools’ teachers.

Formal negotiations on the evaluations began just this week, but the Barr and UFT Secretary Michael Mendel said that there has been progress, although a new evaluation plan has not yet been vetted by lawyers to ensure it conforms to state education law.

“There is absolutely a willingness on our part and on Green Dot’s part to do this,” Mendel said.

Barr and Stein described a close friendship that has formed between Barr and UFT President Michael Mulgrew — and also between Stein, Mendel, and Leo Casey, the union’s resident big thinker and vice president.

“We met for breakfast and we ended up almost going to lunch,” Barr said of his first meeting with Mulgrew three months ago. He said that he found Mulgrew to be extremely thoughtful about the future of the teaching profession. The two spoke about how to reconfigure schools for a changing workforce, he said.

“I think a lot of this is just the lost art of trust,” Barr said. “Randi and I and Mike Mulgrew and I — we don’t agree on everything. … How do you find the 80% we all agree on?”

With the two sides are committed to moving forward, part of the ease may also be due to the fact that the negotiations don’t have to address one of the sticking points between the city and union on evaluations more generally: how to handle teachers who are rated ineffective this year.

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