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Schools' Chief Tackles Ordeals With Energy : Education: Ventura Supt. Joseph Spirito keeps his spirits up even when challenges such as low morale, campus scandals and violence have him caught in the line of fire.

September 07, 1993|JEFF MEYERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

During his summer vacation, Ventura schools Supt. Joseph Spirito saw a lot of movies, but the only film he just had to see twice was Clint Eastwood's "In the Line of Fire."

Spirito, 59, found himself closely identifying with Eastwood's character, who just happened to be a 59-year-old washed-up Secret Service agent. In the end, Eastwood overcomes ageism and the odds to save the President's life.

"They wrote him off as too old but he still had the desire," said Spirito.

Eastwood made Spirito's day by showing the public that a 59-year-old man's better days are not necessarily behind him.

"People ask me, 'Where do you get all the energy at your age?' " Spirito said. "I have as much energy as I've ever had."

After a year as head of the Ventura Unified School District, Spirito still bounds around despite a series of ordeals that would have sapped the strength of a much younger person.

Only weeks after being elevated from assistant superintendent in August, 1992, Spirito had a scandal on his hands: Ventura High School football Coach Harvey Kochel was arrested for having sex with a 16-year-old high school girl. With teachers, students and the community looking to Spirito for answers and leadership, he was in the line of fire.

"Staff morale became an issue," Spirito said. "And so did the public's impression of Ventura High and its teachers and students. I had to work my way through that."

School board member Diane Harriman gives Spirito "nothing but the highest praise" for his performance during the Kochel incident. "He spent an awful lot of time at Ventura High giving them the support they needed in a bad situation," Harriman said. "He handled it very well."

Spirito's challenges during his eventful first year included a stabbing at Buena High and an employee contract issue that threatened the district with insolvency.

But the most wrenching incident occurred one night in February, when a 17-year-old Ventura High football player was stabbed to death on a street a few blocks from the school.

Believed to be gang-related, Jesse Strobel's still-unsolved slaying inflamed the public, resulting in tough anti-gang policies at Ventura schools. Community leaders applaud Spirito for acting decisively by closing off Poli Street and taking a hard-line against weapons on campus.

"He's been a good leader, not only in those crisis situations, but in the community as a whole," said Ventura City Councilman Gary Tuttle. "I do a lot of community stuff, and every time I turn around, he's there on the same committee."

In response to community concerns about students' lack of discipline, Spirito also introduced a character-development program into the curriculum. Starting this fall, some of the schools in the district will teach moral values, such as respect and honesty, and by next semester, all 23 schools will implement the program.

"I predict to the parents in the district that after their children are taught this program, discipline problems, suspensions and expulsions will diminish and teachers will have more time to teach," Spirito said.

Spirito hopes his second year will be gentler than the first. If he had his druthers, his days would be filled with the type of positive experience that happened in his office recently, when the door opened and a district painter came in with a hefty trophy. The painter wanted to show "the boss" that the district's employees' softball team had beaten a team from Oxnard to win a tournament.

"How come you didn't ask me to play?" Spirito quipped.

Built like a welterweight, Spirito wears loud ties and crisp white shirts under an assortment of blazers and always looks as if he just came from the barber. The son of an Italian immigrant, he sees himself as an Everyman superintendent who stops for coffee with the bus mechanics at 7 in the morning.

"I like to mix with the troops," said Spirito, a former Army draftee and trumpet player in the U.S. Military Academy Band that played at West Point. "People feel that the superintendent sits behind a desk and makes executive decisions affecting them but they never get to see his face. I want to be high visibility."

Spirito considers himself a hands-on administrator who "utilizes the expertise of my staff and doesn't believe he can do everything alone."

Arlene Miro, district director of administrative services, appreciates Spirito's approach. "He believes in shared decision-making," Miro said, "and expects us to be his right-hand people."

One of Spirito's "major challenges" in the coming year will be to improve the public's perception of Ventura High. According to Spirito and other district officials, the community believes Buena High is safer and better academically, despite research showing the schools are about equal.

The topic is a hot button for Spirito, who gets angry when he discusses what he sees as the real reason for the public's views: racial intolerance. Ventura has more Hispanics and blacks than Buena and serves the predominantly Hispanic Ventura Avenue area.

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