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Classics Scholar Faces Tough Odyssey as Superintendent

August 02, 1992|DENISE HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PASADENA — Vera Vignes, chosen last week as the first woman superintendent in the history of the 22,000-student Pasadena Unified School District, is not your garden variety administrator.

For one, she is a classics scholar, not a career bureaucrat. The 50-year-old Vignes, who will assume the post Sept. 1, received a master's degree in Latin at National University in Ireland. For another, she unwinds by reading Ovid's poems--in the original language, of course. Homer's "Odyssey" is another favorite.

After years as a high school English teacher, and then school administrator--most recently at Pasadena Unified--Vignes says she is embarking on her toughest odyssey. As the district's new superintendent, she will face massive budget cuts, escalating violence on school campuses and the need to raise test scores. Educators know her as a person who spares no energy in meeting challenges.

"I'm driven by helping kids to learn, and the superintendent has to be the first and foremost teacher in the district," she said this week.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 6, 1992 Home Edition San Gabriel Valley Part J Page 2 Column 5 Zones Desk 2 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
New superintendent--Due to incorrect information provided by the Pasadena Unified School District, an article in The Times Sunday stated incorrectly that Vera Vignes is the first woman to be appointed district superintendent. The first woman superintendent was the late Verdelle Reynolds, who served from 1978 to mid-1979.

Vignes plans to spend the upcoming weeks working with Philip Linscomb, who is retiring as superintendent at the end of August. The Pasadena Board of Education offered Vignes the position Tuesday after mounting a nationwide search that drew 43 applicants. The appointment will become formal later this month after both sides agree on terms and sign a contract.

School board member George Van Alstine said the board's decision to hire Vignes was unanimous and occurred without bringing any of the 10 candidates interviewed back for more talks.

"What the board was most impressed with was her dedication and commitment to ensuring that every child, regardless of background, is able to achieve his or her potential," said Elbie Hickambottom, president of the board.

Being a known quantity also helped. Additionally, "She's very honest and forthright in her dealings with other people, completely trustworthy and dedicated," Hickambottom added.

Vignes said one of her first priorities will be to strengthen the core academic curriculum to boost student achievement. Additionally, she wants to develop a general plan to deal with budget shortfalls so that the district is not caught off guard in the future.

Like many urban school districts, Pasadena's is reeling from severe financial cutbacks and had to slash $2.5 million this year to balance a $135-million budget.

Pasadena must also cope with the drug, gun and gang problems common in all urban school districts today. Recent years have brought an increase in violence in the overwhelmingly minority student population, as well as growing numbers of immigrant children who need bilingual education.

In efforts to reach out to minority parents, the new superintendent is already taking private Spanish lessons and hopes to be conversant within a year.

"I feel it's necessary that I have a command of that so I can communicate, if not perfectly, at least comfortably," said Vignes, who speaks Italian and studied Latin for 11 years.

Vignes said her family instilled a love of learning in her that still flames. Her great-grandfather Jean Louis Vignes immigrated to Los Angeles from Bordeaux, France, in the 1820s and founded one of the state's first vineyards near present-day Union Station in downtown Los Angeles.

Ranchero Vignes--the word means vine in French--flourished throughout the 19th Century. Today, the grape arbors are long gone but a downtown street still bears the family name.

Vignes grew up in Lincoln Heights and attended Immaculate Heart College, where she majored in English and ancient classics. Later she lived in Ireland while pursuing her master's in Latin and developed a love for traveling that she pursues to this day.

Upon her return, Vignes took a job teaching English Literature at Hollywood High School and stayed 11 years, eventually becoming dean of students. Then she moved to John Muir Junior High School in Burbank, where she spent eight years as an assistant principal and then principal.

Seven years ago, Vignes moved to the Santa Maria-Bonita Elementary School District as assistant superintendent for administrative services in that Central California district. She came to Pasadena five years ago, moving one block away from the district headquarters. An avid walker, the new superintendent strolls to work each day and puts in up to 20 miles of walking each weekend.

Last year, Vignes completed her doctorate in educational policy at USC and wrote her dissertation on the restructuring of American urban high schools. She blended her academic interests with her professional duties when she hired East Coast educational reformer Judy Codding as principal of Pasadena High School in 1988.

With Vignes' support, Codding set to work redesigning classes at Pasadena High School. The new programs emphasized core classes and paired teachers and counselors with groups of students over several years to provide more focused learning. Earlier this year, state Schools Supt. Bill Honig visited the campus, citing it as a model in innovative restructuring.

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