Barr was born in 1959, just south of San Francisco, and lived with his mother in Monterey, near the military base, where she worked as a dental assistant and a cocktail waitress. When he was six, he and his younger brother spent a year in foster care. Later, they made their home in a trailer in Missouri, before moving back to California.
In school, Barr was a good athlete, and popular. Every teacher knew his name. His brother, Mike, was quiet and overweight. Mike tried playing in the band for a while. ("Why do you give the chubby kid a tuba?" Barr asked, sighing. "Do you know how hilarious it is seeing a chubby kid try to get on the bus with a tuba?") But soon Mike got lost in their large high school. Steve graduated, and went on to the University of California at Santa Barbara. Mike dropped out, and never really settled into an adult life. Eventually, he was in a motorcycle accident. After a series of surgeries, he lost his leg. He won a settlement, but that attracted the wrong friends. "You take a poor kid who has problems and give him a lot of money . . ." Barr said. When Barr was thirty-two, Mike died of a drug overdose. His mother died shortly afterward, and Barr began to drift.
He discovered charter schools by accident. When President Clinton went to San Carlos to visit California's first charter school, Barr tagged along, and encountered the school's founder, Don Shalvey, and a Silicon Valley businessman, Reed Hastings, who had just founded Netflix. Shalvey and Hastings were about to draw up a ballot initiative that would increase the number of charter schools in California. Barr decided to help. "He came out of nowhere," Hastings said. And he brought a very different approach. He persuaded them, for instance, to try to make peace with the California Teachers Association. "He helped us realize we were perhaps overly simplistic in demonizing the union as the enemy," Hastings said. "It turned out C.T.A. was open to a stronger charter law."
As Barr worked on the campaign, he started to think about his own years in school, and his brother's. High school, he decided, was the point where their lives diverged. When the charter-school measure passed, he broke up with his girlfriend, moved out of their apartment, gave up his convertible, and rented a decrepit place in Venice, sight unseen. He moved in on Christmas morning, to a room strewn with needles, vomit, and feces. "I'm thirty-nine, I'm alone," he said. "Merry fucking Christmas." He tied his chocolate Lab, Jerry Brown, in the corner, put on the Harry Belafonte album his mother used to play every Saturday morning, when they did chores together, and scrubbed the apartment.
A year and a half later, he opened Animo Leadership Charter High School, near Lennox. (He said that in Spanish animo can mean "courage" or "valor," but he prefers a Mexican surfing buddy's translation: "Get off your ass.") He hired five of his seven teachers straight out of college and rented classrooms at a night school. When one of the teachers quit in the first couple of weeks, he replaced her with his office manager. Barr worked mostly without pay for the next few years, spending the last of his savings and his brother's settlement, and doing such damage to his finances that Costco revoked his membership. He pitched in a lot himself. "Maybe the most fun I had was going to test-drive school buses," he said.
And he starting a surfing club. "There were a handful of kids at the school who were really fricking cool but weren't being reached somehow," he said. "There was a kid named Ricky. He was smart, charismatic. All the girls loved this guy. There was another girl named Stephanie, who I think had a crush on Ricky." They agreed to find twenty-five kids who would show up before school, at 6 A.M.
"We were driving to the South Bay, Manhattan Beach. It was real quiet," Barr recalled. "Halfway out there, one of the kids said, 'Mr. Barr, do you have to know how to swim to surf?' " Half the kids couldn't. Barr put his head in his hands and laughed.
"The Manhattan Beach school system, they actually have surfing in gym class, so you have all these blond-haired, blue-eyed kids in the water," Barr continued. "And here come these kids from Lennox. The Lennox surf team." He mimicked a slow, tough walk. "Their gear's a little off, you know, they're all Latino, and a couple of black kids. I remember them getting triple takes."
At the end of its first chaotic year, Barr's school beat Hawthorne High School in every measurable outcome. "When the scores come out, I have to call Shalvey"--Barr's charter-school mentor--"and ask him, 'Are they good?' " Barr said. " 'Cause I don't fucking know. I don't know how to read test scores." The night school eventually moved, and Animo Leadership took over the entire campus. Last year, U.S. News & World Report ranked it among the top hundred public high schools in the country.
I'm in the thick of the part where he takes over Lock High School ----