By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 2, 2009
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is talking to a Los Angeles nonprofit group that has improved one of that city's most troubled high schools about running at least one low-achieving high school in the District, expanding her strategy of pursuing outside partners to manage public schools.
Rhee met last week with Steve Barr, founder and chairman of Green Dot Public Schools, which operates 17 small charter schools in Los Angeles and one in the Bronx, N.Y. He is perhaps best known for his forcible takeover of Locke Senior High School from the Los Angeles Unified School District last year. Green Dot replaced most of the faculty, divided the 1,800-student school into smaller "academies" and dramatically increased spending on security.
Although signs of academic success are unknown -- this year's round of standardized test scores has not been released -- Green Dot has won praise for making the campus safer and sparking significant increases in attendance and student retention rates. That was enough for Rhee to consider Green Dot as a possible partner.
District and Green Dot officials said talks are in a preliminary stage. But Green Dot's possible role signals Rhee's continued interest in partnering with private education management organizations to run some of the District's high schools. This summer, Friends of Bedford, founded by leaders of a successful school in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., will take over operation of Coolidge and Dunbar high schools. Friendship schools, which runs charter schools in the District and Baltimore, will assume control of Anacostia High School this summer.
Those three schools are among 10 D.C. high schools (Ballou, Cardozo, Eastern, Roosevelt, Spingarn, Wilson and Woodson are the others) required to restructure under the federal No Child Left Behind law because of persistent failure to meet testing benchmarks in reading and math. Rhee has told audiences that she regards the high schools, filled with students who have spent years in low-achieving elementary and middle schools, as her most daunting challenge.
To walk into those schools is to "just be incredibly jarred into facing reality," she told a group of young educators last year. "It's astonishing to me and completely unacceptable."
Rhee met with Barr last week in the District at a national conference of charter school leaders. Jennifer Calloway, Rhee's spokeswoman, said they "spoke in general about what Green Dot has done in L.A. and the need for reform on the high school level in D.C." Calloway said that over the next few months, Barr would be meeting with Rhee's staff "to see if Green Dot could bring value to" D.C. public schools.
In California, Green Dot gets about $8,400 per high school student from the state. It also relies on philanthropic money. The per-pupil allotment for high school students in the District is $10,376 for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
Barr did not return a phone message this week, but in a posting last week on Education Week's Politics K-12 blog, he was quoted as expressing eagerness to bring his turnaround model to a nationally prominent stage such as the District. He said he wanted to create a model that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan could use as an example of how to turn around the country's worst high schools.
A collaboration with Green Dot would place Rhee in partnership with one of the education world's most outspoken and unorthodox leaders. Barr, a former Democratic fundraiser and television reporter, began Green Dot in 1999 and built California's largest group of charter schools, which are publicly funded and independently operated. The test scores at Green Dot schools are higher than the Los Angeles Unified average, and they are run with unionized teachers, highly unusual in the charter world. Last month, Green Dot signed a three-year contract with the American Federation of Teachers for its charter school in the Bronx.
When Los Angeles officials resisted his bid to take over Locke, Barr successfully took advantage of a provision in California law that allows schools to abandon a district if at least half of the tenured teachers sign a petition. His challenge at Locke -- and possibly in the District -- would be to run a large neighborhood public high school legally obligated to take all eligible students rather than a small charter school with an attendance cap.
Marco Petruzzi, Green Dot president and chief executive, acknowledged that the company hasn't proved its ability to dramatically raise academic standards at Locke. But he said the nonprofit group has learned enough to bring its approach to other cities.
"People in education like to wait for 10 years for final proof," he said. "And you've lost 10 generations of kids."