George Lucas Educational Foundation

Seven Building Blocks for Successful High Schools

Green Dot founder Steve Barr shares his organization's fundamental requirements for creating a viable school.
Malaika Costello-Dougherty
Former senior editor at Edutopia.
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Bring It Back:

"How many of you will come back to change this neighborhood?" Steve Barr asked more than 300 students graduating from Locke High School, in the Los Angeles district of Watts.

Credit: Malaika Costello-Dougherty

This article accompanies the feature "Steve Barr's Answers for School Reform."

Green Dot consists of 19 small charter high schools in Los Angeles -- including the infamous Locke High School which the organization led through a significant turnaround -- as well as Green Dot New York that finished its first year last June. Replicating success seems to be part of Green Dot's DNA.

Here are seven tenets of Green Dot's philosophy about schools that work:

  1. 1. Small, Safe, Personalized Schools: No public school should have more than 500 students.

  2. 2. High Expectations: Every student graduates ready for college or work. Every student is prepared to attend a four-year university.

  3. 3. Local Control: Critical decisions such as hiring and firing and curriculum customization are done at the school site. Principals and teachers are empowered to try new things.

  4. 4. Parent Participation: Parents are required to volunteer at school for at least 35 hours a year.

  5. 5. Maximize Funding to the Classroom: Dollars are spent and budgeted at the school site. Money isn't spent on bureaucracy.

  6. 6. Extend the School Day: Schools are kept open until 5 p.m. daily to provide students with after-school programs and to serve the community.

  7. 7. Collective Bargaining: Teachers are at the table to make decisions, which makes them more empowered employees. Unions are involved in the reform efforts.
Malaika Costello-Dougherty is a senior editor at Edutopia.

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Steve J. Moore's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I read the first point about being a smaller school and the first thing I think of, for US schools, is sports. Schools benefit from being bigger for more competitive large sports teams.

I'm wondering what people's views are on athletics in public school.

I see many pros with school community, participation and also with encouraging struggling students who wish to play sports. I see cons as well though in terms of cost and teacher/coach obligations.

Would we be better off with community/club sports teams being privately run rather than through schools? Would schools able to focus more on education or would we be cutting something that contributes great value on a different level?

Tristan de Frondeville's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that there are a lot of great lessons learned in participating in sports. But in the United States, I think we ascribe to sports skills and lessons that we think can't be learned elsewhere, and that frustrates me, as (1) there are a lot of children who can't participate in sports successfully for many reasons, and (2) I think those skills can be taught elsewhere. The skills of collaboration towards a common goal, and teamwork, and working hard at practice every day can be taught in the classroom in Project Based Learning (because projects provide a big enough common goal to make the striving worthwhile....more than tests will ever be able to do), and they can also be taught in the arts.

I taught at the School of the Arts in San Francisco for 7 years, and saw a lot of student growth and pride in these skills and others, with NO sports teams. AND there were NEVER any fights.

Having worked to turn around schools, I am impressed with the 7 steps put forward by Mr. Barr, and wish him and his students the best.


Evelyn Rothstein's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I like all your ideas, but one is missing--It's called The Power of Language. High achievers, regardless of socio-economic backgroup, know lots of language. Yet, the ethos of our country is to overlook this essential aspect. We avoid linguistics and linguists as TOO HIGH level. We demean other languages and discourage bilingualism, making fun of Europeans who are now learning three and four languages.

We allowed George Bush to tell us to avoid using French words--that's at least 5000 high-level vocabulary words that enrich English. Imagine an English without rendezvous, chauffeur, lingerie, deja vu, chic, maitre d'. In one school where I work as a consultant, Spanish-speaking children get a ZERO on any test in which they use a Spanish word. Children have come up to me and asked "How do I say BURRITO in English?" Do you have an answer to that question. Maybe it's BLINTZE or is it CALZONE or PIEROGI? How about WON TON? So what will do?

What's this American fear of "foreign words?" Baton Rouge, Des Moines, Los Angeles, La Cruces? Are we going to change them to Red Stick, From the Monks, The Angels, The Crosses?

I have three books on Writing and Language, yet many schools refuse to TEACH writing. The ASK students to write, but refuse to provide instruction.

Just some of the problems. But thanks for all that you are doing

Evelyn Rothstein, Educational Consultant, Evelyn Rothstein Learning Strategies.

Janet Stivers-Blaebaum's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

While I agree with most of this article, I have an issue with #4. We are a rural K-8 school with approx. 830 students. Many of our students are from low socio-economic backgrounds with parents who work multiple jobs or don't have transportation to our school. We have many opportunities/events that encourage parent participation at varying times of the day, yet we experience the same parents/grandparents volunteering. While we encourage parent participation, many are unable for economic, social and practical reasons. We are understanding of this. I think that mandating a time requirement for parent participation is not being sympathetic to our parents' situations. I think that, perhaps, an incentive to participate a set time within a year mught be a better approach. We must remember that MOST parents give us what they can with what they have to work with.

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