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New Schools Chief Quietly 'Paid Dues' in Lynwood District

October 06, 1985|LEE HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

LYNWOOD — LaVoneia Canada Steele's predecessor as superintendent of the Lynwood Unified School District seemed to enjoy the hurly-burly of school board politics, and she kept her critics on their toes with well-placed verbal jabs.

Steele's predecessor, Charlie Mae Knight, once referred to herself as "rock 'em-sock 'em Charlie," and she said it with obvious pride.

But Steele quietly makes it clear that she is a different personality, adding that she does not mean to imply any criticism.

Where Knight enjoyed tussling with the board that finally bought out her contract July 31 for $154,000, Steele said she has every intention of getting along with the board through "communication."

And, where Knight enjoyed the spotlight, Steele appears uncomfortable in public view.

"This is painful," said Steele, referring to a reporter's questions. "But I'll get used to it."

Educator Finally Got Her Wish

Indeed, she said, she has spent all of her professional career as an educator preparing to become a superintendent of a unified school system.

The 49-year-old native of Utica, Miss., finally got her wish when the Lynwood Unified School District Board of Education appointed her superintendent effective Oct. 1.

She is not concerned that the board vote on her appointment was not unanimous, Steele said during a recent interview. Board member Joe Battle said he did not vote for Steele because he felt the district should conduct a nationwide search for a superintendent.

"Remember, Dr. Knight, the previous superintendent, didn't get a unanimous vote of the board," said Steele, who has been employed at the 12,000-student district for nine years.

Steele said she also is not concerned that her appointment has drawn criticism from some members of the community. Some in the audience had stood and shouted disapproval, accusing Steele, among other things, of not being aggressive enough and of betraying Knight by taking the job.

"I believe people have a right to express their opinions. And that is what they are--opinions," Steele said.

Steele inherits a district that has been embroiled in controversy. Much of it was centered around Knight, who was suspended June 4

with pay when the board voted 3-0 to ask the school district's attorney to investigate allegations of misuse of funds. An earlier grand jury investigation of similar charges found no evidence of misconduct.

However, there are still some unsettled questions. One of them involves a yearlong squabble between the school board and the city over the use of park land to build a $34-million high school.

"The buildings at the Lynwood campus are adequate, but our students deserve the best. It would be wonderful if we could have a new high school as soon as possible," Steele said, adding that she is confident a solution can be found.

As far as academic achievement, Steele said "student achievement is not nearly as high as it should be, with the district's low ranking (based on state testing), but there has been improvement and there will be more."

Teachers also spent the summer beginning a remodeling of the high school curriculum to bring it in line with state standards, Steele said. Courses in English, math, science and social studies were updated and classes in Spanish and Latin were added this fall.

Academic Achievement

There have been complaints of insufficient books for each student and low academic achievement.

Steele said that in the past the cost of books made it difficult to provide texts for every student, "but the books have been ordered for every student," although "there may be a specific area where students are without workbooks."

An additional concern, Steele said, is finding enough money in this year's budget to make academic improvements and provide, among other things, raises for district employees.

The $39-million budget for 1985-86 has a reserve of only $1.2 million from which salary increases and any emergency costs must be drawn, Steele said.

"The budget is tight and it is dwindling day by day," she said.

In spite of any pending problems, Steele said she is looking forward to the job. "This is where I want to be," she said.

Family of Educators

Steele--who is single, lives in Culver City and does abstract oil painting for relaxation--comes from a family of educators. Her father, who passed away last year, was a retired principal and school administrator. Her mother is a retired teacher and a sister is an elementary school teacher. All of the family, including Steele, taught in the Chicago public school system at one time or another.

The family moved from Mississippi to Cooper, Tex., to a housing project in Chicago, where Steele attended public schools. She graduated from George Washington Carver High School, before receiving a bachelor of education degree from Chicago Teachers College in 1956. She has a master's degree in administration and supervision from the University of Chicago and a doctorate in general administration from Stanford University.

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