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The 'Insider' Who Spent His Career Outside

Education: Zacarias may be more willing to shake up the LAUSD than his critics suspect.

May 04, 1997|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

Some will no doubt see the selection of Ruben Zacarias to be the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District as evidence of how resistant to change this city's oft-maligned school system is. That would be a mistake.

Although Zacarias has spent more than 30 years with LAUSD, working his way up from teacher to principal to deputy superintendent, he has not overtly resisted the reform efforts that have aimed to shake up the city's schools during the past three years. The new superintendent even showed remarkable patience and flexibility in going along with the unprecedented selection process that grew out of the reform efforts and dragged on for almost a year.

Zacarias is 68, after all, and could have retired rather than put up with political, sometimes hostile scrutiny of his abilities as an educator and administrator--not to mention the series of public and private meetings in which he had to sell his candidacy against those of retired Los Angeles banker William E. B. Siart and Daniel A. Domenech, a school superintendent from Long Island, N.Y.

Zacarias says he stayed around and put himself through such a rigorous selection process because he believes he still has something to offer Los Angeles from his long experience as an educator. And I believe him.

For all the talk of Zacarias being an "insider" with LAUSD, that is not completely accurate. In all the years I have known him and reported on his work for LAUSD, he was usually in the position of being an "outsider" within the LAUSD bureaucracy, trying to make it more responsive to other "outsiders," particularly Latino parents.

Arguably, the biggest single challenge facing LAUSD is in educating the more than two-thirds of its 650,000 children who are Latino.

I am not suggesting that Zacarias deserves the superintendent's job solely because he is a Mexican American. That would be ethnic politics at its worst. But there is an important reason why Zacarias' ethnic background and his personal history make him the right person for this job, at this time.

As my colleague Bill Boyarsky wrote after last month's city elections, the public schools are at a crossroads. For the first time since the 1970s, they seem to have the political backing of Los Angeles' middle-class voters. That became clear when Proposition BB, a bond issue to raise $2.4 billion for school construction and repairs, passed with 71% of the vote. Proposition BB also had remarkably heavy support among Latinos, gaining an estimated 80% of the Latino votes cast.

Many of those Latino voters are new citizens who are buying homes in "undesirable" neighborhoods all over town, starting up small businesses and otherwise helping revive the middle-class dream that Los Angeles and Southern California in general have long epitomized.

Zacarias, coming from a similar background, is ideally suited to rally that emerging Latino middle class to keep supporting the city schools. He is the son of Mexican parents who was raised in the Boyle Heights barrio and began his teaching career at the same school, Breed Street Elementary, where he once was a student. That is also where he served as principal and first earned his admirable reputation for being accessible to parents.

I don't always buy into the cliche that Latino professionals are role models for Latino kids. But if there was ever someone well-suited to be a role model for the city's emerging Latino middle class, it is Zacarias.

So let me respectfully suggest that everyone in town who claims to care about the public schools give Zacarias a fair chance at running them, even if he is "an insider." We just may be surprised at how willing he is to keep shaking things up. And at the very least he will keep a key constituency of those schools working to help make them better.

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