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A New Kind Of School: The "Neighborhood" Charter

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What this week's New Yorker story on Steve Barr and Green Dot gets right -- and wrong.

This week's New Yorker profiles education activist Steve Barr (article here), whose upstart nonprofit called Green Dot has created a slew of successful schools in Los Angeles over the past nine years.

No doubt, the stunning turnaround at Locke and the possibility of new hope for America's 5,000 persistently failing schools are important issues. And, by and large, writer Douglas McGray gets it right: Barr's charisma and opportunism, the lack of "secret sauce" to Green Dot's instructional model, and the profound sense of change at Locke this year. There's a lot of good stuff in there.

Still, McGray misses some key things and gets a few other things wrong. Having spent the last year and a half visiting and researching the school, let me take a minute to fill you in:

Barr doesn't drop F-bombs left and right -- except in front of print reporters (who seem to lap up his tough-guy talk). There's a baby seat in the back of his decommissioned police car. And Barr's not just a thorn in the school district's side. He's a possible candidate for superintendent of LA schools -- or even mayor.

Assistant principal Zeus Cubias is more than just a poster boy for Green Dot. He's still extremely -- frequently -- candid about the failings of "The Dot." And by most accounts he wasn't one of the three original Locke teachers responsible for gathering most of the signatures needed to hand the school over.

The nationwide expansion of Green Dot isn't a done deal - yet. Barr's efforts have won Green Dot a gobs of supporters. Both Arne Duncan (Obama's education secretary) and Randi Weingarten (president of one of the national teachers unions) have energy and money to spare for bold new efforts. And there's probably no one other than Barr who's as well-positioned to lead a national effort to fix failing schools. But so far there's been no public comment about a national partnership from either Duncan or Weingarten, and there's no budget line or action plan that I can dig up. If and when the expansion of Green Dot happens, the New Yorker article will have helped Barr conjure it up. (Ironic - I know.)

In fact, what's going on at Locke goes far beyond just turning around failing schools. The "new" Locke is a hybrid kind of school that doesn't really exist anywhere else. It has most of the familiar features of public schools: open enrollment for neighborhood children, unionized teachers, and a full set of course offerings and electives. It looks and feels like the regular, full-sized public high school that many of us grew up with. But it also has newer elements like autonomy from district mandates, annual teacher contracts, and a major focus on accountability.

It's the traditional neighborhood school, re-imagined. It's a "neighborhood" charter school.

And its existence - permit me some conjuring of my own - addresses a lot of obstacles to change and makes it extremely difficult for education's entrenched interests to continue their endless, pointless, Cylons-vs-Humans feuding. It's something that many parents (and teachers) might want for their own schools.

A Spencer Fellow at the Columbia School of Journalism, Russo is writing a book about Green Dot and the Locke turnaround. You can find his blog at thisweekineducation.com.