Steve Barr (educational innovator)

Steve Barr (educational innovator)

Steve Barr is the founder of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school organization in Los Angeles, CA. He is also the founder of Future is Now Schools, a reform non-profit school organization that helps schools reform from within.

Early life

Steve Barr was born in San Mateo, California in 1959. His mother was Diana Barr (nee Stessel), a single mother. Steve Barr's father, Edward Barr, left the family when Barr was 2. Barr had a younger brother, Michael who was born in 1961. Barr spent his early childhood in Monterrey, CA where his mother worked as a dental assistant at Fort Ord and as a waitress at the Highland's Inn in Carmel, CA. Due to economic duress, Barr and his brother Michael were placed in foster care for a short time. Barr's mother took additional jobs to afford an apartment in Cupertino, CA so her sons could attend Cupertino High School. Barr was elected Student Body President and was involved in the Basketball team for Cupertino High School. He later attended De Anza college and U.C. Santa Barbara where he majored in Political Science. During this time, Barr worked at United Parcel Service and was active in the Teamster's Union. While still in college, Barr started the College Democrats at UCSB and interned for then-governor Jerry Brown. Barr also, while a Junior at UCSB, headed a campaign for Jack O'Connell for California State Assembly. O'Connell won in a big upset and was later elected as California Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Early professional life

Upon graduation, Barr was hired as an advance man by the Olympic Committee for the cross-country 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games Torch Relay. Barr documented his travels in a memoir titled The Flame, an Unlikely Patriot Finds a Country to Love, published by William Morrow (1987). During this time, Barr also joined the national staff of Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado's presidential run. Barr also joined the staff of Rep. Geraldine Ferraro's Vice Presidential run in 1984. In addition, Barr worked for Gov. Michael Dukakis' run for president in 1988. While involved in politics, Barr maintained a presence as a writer for Sport Magazine, MAC World, and later George Magazine (Online). He also worked as a fundraiser for the California Democratic Party and its then-chairman, Gov. Jerry Brown. While at the Democratic Party, Barr started an urban public-service voter registration drive aimed at immigrant populations in San Francisco and Los Angeles called the Bonaface Project. Barr led a group of Democratic activists and college students at building an after-school project and neighborhood center at St. Bonaface Catholic Church in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, CA. During that time, Barr met Jeff Ayeroff, head of Virgin Records and founder of Rock the Vote.

Rock the Vote years

When Barr was 30 years old in 1990, Jeff Ayeroff of Virgin Records, approached him to help with a youth-empowerment voter-registration project called Rock the Vote. Rock the Vote's aim was to empower 18-24 year-olds by encouraging voter-registration to fight censorship. Rock the Vote formed a close alliance with members of the music industry, radio stations, MTV and artists. Barr, Berverly Lund and Jody Utal were given the title of Co-Founders by the Rock the Vote board of directors in 1991. After reading the book Why Americans don't Vote, by Richard Cloward and Francis Fox Piven, Barr latched on to the importance of the languishing Motor Voter Bill legislation to remove road-blocks to voter registration for young people and working poor by allowing voter registration upon driver's license applications and other public services. Barr and Rock the Vote partnered with a coalition that included the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Calpirg and Project Vote. Barr and Rock the Vote partnered with MTV president Judy McGrath and recruited artists such as REM, Lenny Kravitz, Queen Latifah, Ice T, The Ramones, Jane's Addiction and many others. They generated over a million post-cards that supported the Motor Voter Bill Legislation. Barr and the coalition got senate and house approval. It was then vetoed by then-president George H. W. Bush during his campaign against Bill Clinton in 1992. Gov. Bill Clinton championed the legislation during the hard-fought presidential campaign. Upon being elected to president in 1993, Clinton signed the Voter Registration Act of 1992 into law. Barr left Rock the Vote in 1993, after which he worked for various television endeavors including a show called A Call to Action on the Disney Channel. Barr was also a correspondent on a show called the Crusaders, another Disney-produced news-show which was nationally-syndicated.


During the mid-90's, Barr enjoyed moderate success as a TV producer after having worked in the political arena since college. His younger brother Michael was going in a different direction. After serving a stint in the Navy after high school, Michael bounced from job to job without any clear career path and he engaged in dangerous activities including motorcycles and drugs. On one fateful motorcycle ride, Michael was accidentally hit by a delivery truck and suffered numerous injuries including the loss of a leg. Michael was awarded a sizable insurance settlement of an undisclosed amount. However, the devastation of his disability exacerbated his dependence on street drugs and prescribed painkillers. While Barr was away for work, he got the news that Michael had overdosed and died at the age of 30. Shortly thereafter, Barr's mother, Diana, died of cancer. Despondent over the premature loss of his brother and mother, Barr questioned why the trajectory of his life led to professional success while that of his brother was so different. Barr wondered how two brothers from the same environment could have such vastly different outcomes. While the two brothers both struggled to achieve marked academic success in school, the elder brother realized he had been endowed with other attributes that made success in mainstream high school possible, which, in turn, enabled him to later attend university and engage in professional life. Steve Barr was tall, athletic, funny and naturally inclined to social graces that enabled him to fit in with the popular kids at school and engage in extra-curricular activities at which he excelled. Michael, on the other hand, was a "good kid" as Steve remembers, but he had not been able to nurture any particular skills or talents that would have caused him to stand out in school. As a result, Steve feels Michael "fell between the cracks" at Cupertino High School, a large Manufacturing-era school where it's easy to get lost in the shuffle. As the sole beneficiary of Michael's small fortune by way of the insurance settlement, Barr deliberated over how best to spend the money. Since the money came at an extreme cost, Barr felt he couldn't squander it on material comforts for himself. He felt compelled to invest the sum in a way that would honor his brother and, in doing so, help other kids overcome challenges. The issues that befell the Barr brothers were many including paternal abandonment, poverty and drug abuse, but one issue stood out for Barr as the key reason for Michael's failure: lack of educational opportunities. Cupertino High School is a thriving public school by all measures, but one that didn't serve the needs of all the students in its enrollment. Barr questioned the chances of success for young people who come from seriously economically disadvantaged communities who are also facing the additional burden of racial prejudice. Through his work in politics, it was not lost on Barr that access to educational opportunities is the key determinant of youth achievement and that if Michael had been able to benefit from a more nurturing school environment, he could have had a chance at overcoming the economic disadvantages that plagued him at home. Barr made a decision in the late 90's that he would quit his job as a TV producer and embark on a new career as an education reformer.

Green Dot Public Schools

Barr met education-activist and founder of Netflix Reed Hastings and Don Shalvey, the founder of California's first charter school, the San Carlos Learning Center, in Northern California. At an event in 1997, President Bill Clinton announced a federally funded public charter school-grant program. As a result, Barr founded his flagship organization Green Dot Public Schools and opened his first charter high school, Animo Leadership High School in Lennox, CA in 2000. He later opened subsequent schools including Animo Inglewood in 2002 and Animo Oscar de la Hoya in Boyle Heights in 2004. By the end of Barr's involvement at Green Dot, he had 20 high schools under his auspice. Barr left Green Dot in 2009.


See Douglas McGray, The Instigator, The New Yorker, May 11, 2009 at p. 66.