A Cal­i­for­nia idea whose time is here

The Washington Times Weekly - - National -

ELOS AN­GE­LES. very­thing new starts here, as Cal­i­for­ni­ans in­sist on telling ev­ery­one, but pur­vey­ors of one im­por­tant Cal­i­for­nia ex­port have reached to the past for some­thing bor­rowed and some­thing old as the for­mula of suc­cess.

Char­ter schools, grow­ing nearly ev­ery­where, sprouted in Cal­i­for­nia first, and thrive here like nowhere else. Most of the hun­dreds of char­ter schools across the na­tion are in Cal­i­for­nia, and most of the Cal­i­for­nia schools are in Los An­ge­les.

Stu­dents in the char­ter schools com­prise only a tiny frac­tion of the vast Los An­ge­les Uni­fied School Dis­trict, with its en­roll­ment of nearly a mil­lion kids, but the idea of char­ter schools — pub­lic schools but in­de­pen­dent of most of the stric­tures of the ed­u­ca­tion­ist bu­reau­cracy — gives teach­ers and par­ents the free­dom to try what­ever works. The con­cept harks back to the time when pub­lic schools were crea­tures of the com­mu­nity, not wards of a fear­ful cen­tral ad­min­is­tra­tion con­tent to pro­duce mostly mush.

The latest recog­ni­tion of the suc­cess of the move­ment in Cal­i­for­nia is a gift of cash — $10.5 mil­lion — from Eli Broad, a bil­lion­aire Los An­ge­les phi­lan­thropist, to the col­lec­tion of char­ter schools founded by Steve Barr, 47, a one-time com­mu­nity ac­tivist and some­time po­lit­i­cal or­ga­nizer. He helped or­ga­nize New Hamp­shire in Bill Clin­ton’s first pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, and later founded Rock the Vote, which suc­ceeded in get­ting a lot of the young and pre­vi­ously un­in­ter­ested vot­ers to leave their CDs and PCs long enough to cast a vote. Six years ago, he or­ga­nized his first char­ter school. Now he pre­sides over 10 schools, called Green Dot Pub­lic Schools. “Green” is meant to con­vey con­cern over the en­vi­ron­ment, loosely de­fined, and the prom­ise of a “swath of green” across an ur­ban land­scape lit­tered with bad schools, il­lit­er­ate dropouts and bro­ken prom­ises.

He calls his high school “An­imo Lead­er­ship Char­ter High School,” for the Span­ish word mean­ing “spirit” or “de­sire.” “An­imo” also means, he told LA Weekly, “ ‘get off your [butt]’ in Span­ish surfer­s­peak, so some of our kids say they go to, for ex­am­ple, Get Off Your [Butt] In­gle­wood School.”

Mr. Barr’s salty blunt lan­guage doesn’t en­dear him to crit­ics down­town, but it’s the re­sults that frighten the ed­u­ca­tion­ist es­tab­lish­ment. So far Green Dot schools show a grad­u­a­tion rate dou­ble that of the reg­u­lar pub­lic schools, com­pared with a 40 per­cent dropout rate at the reg­u­lar schools. Such re­sults nat­u­rally at­tract bit­ter en­e­mies.

One of them is the pres­i­dent of the teach­ers union, who scoffs that Mr. Barr is merely “a good sales­man” and com­plains in the familiar lament of the teach­ers unions that his Green Dot schools take money away from the reg­u­lar schools with their enor­mous ap­petites feed­ing all that bu­reau­cratic fat.

“Eli Broad doesn’t write a check if we are [only] marginally bet­ter,” Mr. Barr tells LA Weekly. “Peo­ple don’t write edi­to­ri­als about us be­cause we’re not suc­cess­ful. The only rea­son any­body has to lis­ten to my big mouth is be­cause of our suc­cess. And if our suc­cess wanes, all the de­fend­ers of the sta­tus quo will cel­e­brate.”

The abil­ity of the char­ter schools to in­no­vate, to in­tro­duce ideas and meth­ods that would never make it through the bu­reau­cracy is what makes them at­trac­tive to par­ents who can’t af­ford private schools and who de­spair at what pub­lic schools of­ten of­fer. One group of par­ents, whose chil­dren had at­tended a Wal­dorf school in Santa Mon­ica, or­ga­nized the Ocean Char­ter School and found a church will­ing to lease un­used space for class­rooms in Culver City. The par­ents broke up an as­phalt park­ing lot to make green space, cleaned, painted and re­dec­o­rated them­selves and opened for racially di­verse classes two years ago for 200 kids in kinder­garten through the sixth grade. En­roll­ment has grown, and there’s a wait­ing list for the city’s first Wal­dorf char­ter school.

Alex Met­calf, a suc­cess­ful screen­writer, was a driv­ing force to es­tab­lish the school and when it opened agreed to be­come the di­rec­tor. His two chil­dren had at­tended a Wal­dorf school in Santa Mon­ica. “The recog­ni­tion that a child is not just a brain and that chil­dren don’t need in­for­ma­tion poured into them,” he says, “is what ap­pealed to me.”

Talk like this gives most pub­lic-school ad­min­is­tra­tors se­vere heart­burn, but the kids and their par­ents love their un­usual schools. It’s an­other Cal­i­for­nia idea, like the Ter­mi­na­tor, salad bars and hy­brid Toy­otas, that was as­sem­bled here for ex­port.

Wesley Pruden is ed­i­tor in chief of The Times.

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