LAUSD reaches out to middle class

Los Angeles’ new school superintendent, John Deasy, says one of his top goals is to persuade middle-class families, including Jewish parents, to return to the Los Angeles public schools. “It’s one of the major projects I have to deliver,” he said.

I interviewed Deasy last week in his office on the 24th floor of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) headquarters, just west of downtown Los Angeles.

Deasy has been superintendent since January. Before taking the LAUSD job, he was deputy director of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a major supporter of charter schools. Charters are publicly funded but are run with considerable independence; they also often receive substantial private funds and operate outside of union contracts. Deasy also has served as superintendent of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and the Prince George’s County public schools in Maryland.

It was our first meeting. He — or a member of his staff — had checked me out, and he had read my articles on education. Most important for readers of The Jewish Journal, he was on top of the middle-class issue.

He told me he’s been talking with parents about getting private-school students to enroll in public schools, including those on the Westside and in the West Valley, home to many Jewish families. “People are saying they want to come back, but come back with confidence,” he said. “And that’s my obligation. And I think some are coming back because of the huge economic pressures, which are not going to get better soon. And so, while they may be forced back economically, we want them to feel welcomed and comfortable that the decision … can actually better the lives of their sons and daughters.”

Deasy said school board member Steve Zimmer, who represents much of the Westside, sparked the back-to-public schools effort. He said Zimmer was supported in this by Tamar Galatzan, who represents the West Valley. Both are Jewish.

“I have a whole team on this,” Deasy said. “And we’re going to spend some money to incubate programs that are highly attractive for parents to come back to. At the same time, I am … improving the district, so, as students come through these programs, they will continue to matriculate to better and better public schools.”

He said the program would be presented to the Board of Education in autumn.

Elevating the back-to-the-public-school campaign to a top district priority would be a change. It’s been going on for a few years on some campuses, but has depended on the interest of principals and parent groups. Operating with the intensity of a political campaign in some areas, it has worked. “This is about organizing — listening, communicating … [going] to churches, synagogues, neighborhood councils, door to door,” Zimmer told me when I interviewed him a while back.

Parents dealing with LAUSD face a bewildering number of choices, including traditional public schools, magnets, charters and pilot schools, the last of which offer a blend of charter and traditional approaches. 

“I would acknowledge that now we make choice difficult for parents,” Deasy said. “We want to make it much easier. … Parents shouldn’t have to figure out the system. We are developing a portal [on the LAUSD Web site], which lays all this out. We want parents not to search but to be fed information. And, of course, [the site will be] in all of our six predominant languages, so that what you are left with is to make a choice, not to wonder how to find something. It is one-stop shopping, how to register, how to transfer, how to learn about choices, how to understand college applications, how to fill out a financial-aid form, immunization rules, counseling and support, after-school options.  Up to this point, it has been hit or miss, or, worse, fractured information.”

A major obstacle facing Deasy is the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles. The union is opposed to charters, test-oriented teacher evaluations and any easing of seniority rules that would make it easier to fire teachers. All these steps are favored by LAUSD’s critics, who consider them reforms. Deasy’s time as an executive of the charter-supporting Gates foundation makes the union suspicious of him.

The union has a new president, Warren Fletcher, who succeeded the combative A.J. Duffy. Deasy said he and Fletcher “are working on building a strong relationship together. We both have enormous responsibilities on our shoulders, and we both don’t want to make mistakes in our first year. I have met him a number of times now,” Deasy added. “He wants to do the right thing by his membership and students, and so do I. … How we disagree will be the hallmark of our relationship, that it will be a respectful and productive disagreement when it occurs, and a very respectful and productive collaboration when it occurs.”

If that miracle happens, it will change the theatrics of the Los Angeles public-school debate. With the shouting toned down, perhaps the two sides can then get down to substance, and the district can be made into something attractive to all Los Angeles, to become, as Deasy said, “Best in the West; No. 1 in the nation.”

Superintendant Romer Wants to End Term Early

Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer, the central figure in efforts to improve local schools, has quietly informed top school officials that he would like to leave the job by September, some nine months before his contract expires.

Romer made his request to L.A. Unified school board members at a recent closed-door meeting, where they were discussing the process of choosing his successor. The conversation was confirmed for The Journal Friday by district spokesperson Stephanie Brady, a senior member of Romer’s staff. In the meeting, Romer assured board members that, if needed, he would serve out his contract, which runs through June of next year.

Romer, the former three-term governor of Colorado, has overseen a significant rise in student test scores and academic standards since accepting the job in June 2000. His efforts to build new schools helped jump-start one of the nation’s largest public works projects. At the same time, these reform efforts have been frustrated by an ongoing high dropout rate and lagging academic improvements in middle schools and high schools.

Romer, who is on what staff termed a mini-vacation, was unavailable for comment, but the details of the school board meeting were confirmed by spokesperson Brady. She did not speculate about Romer’s reasons for preferring an early exit. At the meeting during which Romer expressed his wishes, he and board members discussed the hiring of an executive search firm to find a replacement for him and how that firm would do its work.

Board members were less than eager to offer their own confirmation. “He may choose to do that,” said board member Julie Korenstein. “He mentioned he would be willing to leave earlier. But he cannot leave until we find a replacement. We haven’t had a whole lot of discussion on this yet. This has to do with our success in finding a replacement and how long it takes to do our national search.”

Board member David Tokofsky, who could only respond briefly because he was reached during a meeting, said he disagreed with any assertion that Romer would be departing early.

Another board member, Jon Lauritzen commented, “We’ve had some serious conversations in closed session but I can’t confirm anything — although it sounds like your sources of information know what they’re talking about.”

Added board president Marlene Canter: “It’s not something I would even want to comment on. The school board is beginning to do a search for a replacement, as we would have done anyway. His contract goes to June 2007, and he will stay as long as we need him to stay up till June of 2007.”

She added that board members have decided that community input would be an important part of this search. The selection process that, six years ago, led to Romer had been criticized as not sufficiently involving community members.

Rumors about Romer’s future as superintendent already had been circulating widely. These were sparked earlier this week when a senior administrator, addressing a meeting for principals, said, “Romer might be not back for the next school year,” according to two principals in attendance.

The reference was so brief that another principal who was present didn’t recall the remark. The senior administrator was unavailable for comment Friday afternoon.

Some of the recent speculation has focused on whether Romer would be willing to work under the auspices of the mayor’s office. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has vowed to get control of the L.A. Unified School District, with authority similar to the mayors of New York City and Chicago. But even under the fastest scenario, it was never clear that Romer, who is 77, would still be serving by the time Villaraigosa might be calling the shots.

Individual school board members have criticized Villaraigosa’s efforts, which could complicate the search for Romer’s replacement. A top candidate might be more reluctant to take the job if it isn’t clear to whom he or she will answer.

Romer became the L.A. schools chief with mixed expectations after being persuaded to apply by businessman-philanthropist Eli Broad. The school board’s first choice had been Henry Cisneros, former San Antonio mayor and Clinton administration official. L.A. Unified had run through four superintendents in the previous decade and predictions abounded that Romer would be a short-timer or ineffective.

The longtime politician was not an educator, but he’d championed education issues as Colorado’s governor. Romer’s substantial political skills, his selective stubbornness and a determination devoid of personal ambition began both to impress observers and also to make headway on some seemingly intractable issues, notably school overcrowding.

During his tenure, Romer avoided a teachers strike, while also remaining on good terms with a business-civic coalition led by Richard Riordan both during and after his terms as mayor — even though Riordan’s coalition pointedly opposed the influential teachers union.

“I wanted a politically astute leader,” said board member Korenstein. “He was definitely not an educator. On that part, he has been okay. His lasting legacy will be building 180 schools.”

Lauritzen was more unstinting in his praise. “His performance has been fantastic in terms of the building program — absolutely magnificent and his success in increasing performance in test scores has been remarkable as well. In those areas he’s exceeded expectations.

Lauritzen added that there would be plenty of work for Romer’s successor. “The biggest area is the dropout rate. We’ve simply got to get that under control. And we still have a lot of work to do in terms of academic achievement in secondary schools.”

Board president Canter echoed that sentiment: “Governor Romer has brought more change to the district in the last five or six years than has happened in a long time. But none of us is satisfied with where we are. We all feel an urgency for bold reform, and we’re looking for another bold reformer.”