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A Rock and a Hard Place

After 32 Years of Working His Way Up, LAUSD Supt. Ruben Zacarias Is Caught Between a Public Demanding Dramatic Change and a Desire to Give His District the Benefit of the Doubt.

March 08, 1998|AMY PYLE | Amy Pyle is a Times education writer

They have been called to the principal's office for a moment they have been dreading. The niceties are over--Can I get you coffee? Take your coat off. How's your brother?--and their hard work has been reduced to a few disappointing numbers. It could not be more devastating, more embarrassing. Nor more unusual. * This is no ordinary principal-teacher conference. The principal in this case is Supt. Ruben Zacarias, who eight months ago took on the daunting task

of guiding the L.A. Unified School District into the 21st century. And he has summoned a delegation from 116th Street School to explain how their students landed toward the bottom of the district's 100 worst-performing schools.

"I was looking at your re-designation rate," Zacarias begins, referring to the pace at which students transfer from bilingual classes into mainstream English.

Principal Patricia Dawkins sighs and rolls her eyes, bracing for the numbers. A fat zero. Nada. Not one student cleared the bar last year at the South Los Angeles elementary school, where nearly half the students begin school speaking Spanish.

Bilingual education is not 116th Street's only woe. A third of its teachers have no formal job training. Only 4% of last year's fifth graders scored at or above the national median on a standardized reading test; three quarters fell far below average.

Were 116th Street alone, it would be sad enough. But dozens of other schools in the 661-campus district fare equally poorly. As a whole, the district's students rank in the bottom third nationwide. No amount of explanation, justification or clarification can change one simple fact: It is Zacarias' job to fix it.

So the superintendent gets down to the nitty-gritty with Dawkins. He pulls out a sheaf of individual students' test scores. Look here, he says, this girl scored so high. Is she gifted? Has she been tested? Why not? And this boy is so low. You have to really work to do that badly. Has he been tested for special education?

"This is serious business," he warns. "There are those nationally, locally, who would just as soon I wipe all of you out and start all over . . . I don't want to do that."

It is classic Zacarias: Alternately gracious and disarmingly direct, caught between a public demanding dramatic change and a conscience yearning to give the nation's second-largest school district the benefit of the doubt to validate 32 years spent working his way up from temporary preschool instructor to perhaps the last hope for 680,000 pupils.

Last July, Zacarias, a Chatsworth resident, assumed the challenge sought by only a handful of competitors, even after a nationwide search and the promise of a six-figure salary, a wood-paneled office and a company car. When some likely contenders were contacted, they laughed at the prospect: Who would willingly jump into that meat grinder?

Running any urban school district is a thankless job, leading to average tenures across the nation of fewer than three years. Recently, the state and federal governments have turned up the volume on threats to tie funding to performance. In Los Angeles, there is the added urgency of breakup advocates nipping at the mammoth district's heels.

Zacarias, 69, sought the promotion instead of quietly retiring because, he repeats like a mantra, he believes he can make a difference. No one else has held positions at every level in the district--teacher, principal, regional administrator, deputy superintendent. That makes him uniquely qualified, he says, to determine what is broken--inadequately prepared teachers paired with the poorest-prepared students--and how to mend it: amp up on-the-job training and mentors for the teachers, enrich the children's education with such things as after-school tutoring.

"It sounds corny, but I really care about these children, I care about this district, I care about this profession," Zacarias says. "Part of me's the idealist."

Such dogged, some would say blind, optimism helped him win the job over an enthusiastic former bank executive who promised to streamline district bureaucracy--and work for nothing--and a suave New York educator who vowed to turn the place inside out.

But can L.A. Unified's savior really be a district lifer who has not only watched but participated as the school system lumbered from being a magnet for middle-class mothers such as Mary Wold to a place such people flee?

When Wold and her husband moved to Southern California in 1965 with two toddlers, they chose to live in Brentwood--not Santa Monica or Beverly Hills, which have their own smaller school districts--because they wanted their children to attend Los Angeles Unified schools. "Our Realtor told us what a fine school system it was," Wold recalls. "And there was just no question of private school in those days."

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