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Admiral of the schools

The incoming L.A. superintendent correctly targets the district's biggest priorities but will face harsh realities.

October 27, 2006

DAVID L. BREWER'S ongoing whirlwind tour of L.A. schools, newspaper offices and community events has been impressive. The incoming superintendent has charisma to burn, and he's going to need all of it for his ambitious goals to have a fighting chance.

The current muddle and legal uncertainty that passes for schools governance demands a strong personality able to win over community support while standing up to at least three stubborn centers of power -- the school board, the mayor and the teachers union. Maybe it's a shame, but right now charming bravado is one of the key qualifications to run this school district.

In a meeting with The Times editorial board, Brewer, a retired Navy vice admiral, correctly targeted some of the district's biggest priorities. Instead of spouting aphorisms about smaller high schools, Brewer zeroed in on the segment most in need of reform -- the wasteland of middle schools where expectations are unclear, resources scarce and students most at danger of heading down the wrong path instead of mastering the language and math skills necessary for high school.

Other promising ideas: Teams of teachers who monitor each other's work and track students more closely, reacting more quickly when they're in trouble. A major push for private fundraising. A renewed effort to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom.

Still, Brewer may not yet fully comprehend Los Angeles' unique characteristics or how they will complicate his job. He wants to reverse the dropout rate largely by addressing students' educational weaknesses earlier and calling on parents and community members to prod them back toward school.

The ideas aren't bad, but his exhortations will slam against the harsh realities of a vast, peripatetic metropolis. Angelenos are unlikely to know their local dropouts personally, and they would be even less likely to confront gang leaders about their education. Calling the parents of truant students is only occasionally successful; families move so often that children simply aren't where they used to be, or their undocumented parents are timid about sharing their real addresses and phone numbers. The promise of a better job down the road doesn't mean much to a kid who has to help support his family right now.

For all his perceptiveness about middle schools, Brewer risks sounding naive when he pledges to turn them around within two to three years, as well as when he says he will find non-teaching spots for bad teachers while still cutting down on the district's bloated bureaucracy.

Still, better to aim high, even if it means future compromise and unmet promises. Outgoing schools chief Roy Romer has played the last six years as a solid construction man, laying down a foundation -- building schools, streamlining hiring, introducing a coherent reading curriculum. Maybe now is the time for a big talker -- especially one who correctly identifies the district's urgent socioeconomic-related problems and who has a very pragmatic ability to go toe-to-toe with a dysfunctional school board, a regressive teachers union and an ambitious mayor.

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