WHEN I MET Alex Caputo-Pearl in 2002, what first struck me was the breadth of his ambition to shake up a culture of apathy at underserved schools. What next struck me was that much of his ambition would be ground to a nub by the Los Angeles Unified School District.
I almost felt sorry for the guy. A history teacher at Crenshaw High School, Caputo-Pearl was a white, East Coast native who had come to L.A. to enact his dreams of grass-roots education reform because, well, everybody brings their dreams here.
Caputo-Pearl was not alone. He's a founder of the Coalition for Educational Justice, a reform group that includes parents, students and teachers and that focuses on well-known "problem" campuses such as Crenshaw, Dorsey, Washington Prep and Los Angeles high schools. It was the coalition and its efforts to enlist the support of the school board for its campaigns -- curbing military recruitment, creating alternatives to high-stakes testing -- that first brought Caputo-Pearl to my attention. I wished them luck.
And a funny thing happened. The coalition started making a difference. As it packed and occasionally picketed board meetings, a culture of empowerment started taking root at Crenshaw and elsewhere. Of course, Caputo-Pearl was warily regarded by most of his higher-ups. He and his activist ilk were showing up the district simply by advocating change that the district always claimed it wanted but in reality seemed to have little use for.
Then, last year, Crenshaw High lost its accreditation. It was devastating news, but Caputo-Pearl and others welcomed the moment. Here was a chance to get all the deficiencies at Crenshaw addressed by a stunned bureaucracy while the media was paying attention.
The Crenshaw Cougar Coalition, a parent-teacher action group, swiftly formed and laid out its wish list for re-accreditation. According to several coalition parents, Crenshaw's principal and other district brass resisted the partnership. Yet it went forward, with Caputo-Pearl in the thick of the negotiations. In February, Crenshaw regained its accreditation -- but only for a year. There is clearly more work to do.
Then, on the eve of a new school year, Caputo-Pearl was transferred from Crenshaw to Emerson Middle School in affluent West L.A. -- an activist's version of being sent to Siberia. The transfer letter cited Caputo-Pearl's "lack of commitment to the accreditation process" and complained about him "undermining morale" -- even though the accreditation committee commended the involvement of the parent group and a district deputy superintendent lauded Caputo-Pearl's "collaborative spirit."
Caputo-Pearl and his many supporters say it's all politics -- a warning to anyone who would agitate on behalf of inner-city schools. Supt. Roy Romer denies that. He insists that the transfer is entirely about what's best for Crenshaw's accreditation and that Caputo-Pearl (who was also the chairman of the teachers union at Crenshaw) was hindering the accreditation process.
There are many factors here, race among them. It's easy to see a white man working in a chiefly black group as a meddlesome, messianic type leading people of color down a path they would otherwise not go. Angry Crenshaw parents say nothing could be further from the truth. "Alex does not represent us -- we represent ourselves," said Glenn Windom, president of the Cougar Coalition. Black district officials have kept mum about Caputo-Pearl, including the sole African American member of the school board, Marguerite LaMotte, whose district includes Crenshaw.
Yet this is a pivotal moment not just for Caputo-Pearl and Crenshaw but for a black community that has been largely absent from an education reform movement that hit a milestone last week with the passage in Sacramento of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's bill to gain more control over the school district. It is a moment for blacks to make real -- and to keep real -- our own well-worn self-empowerment rhetoric. The crisis at Crenshaw, one of the few schools in the city with a significant black presence, is a chance to do just that.
Meanwhile, Caputo-Pearl is in a new classroom across town. How does he feel about that? "Truthfully, though I want to be at Crenshaw, and I expect to go back, this feels good," he said. "I'm teaching. That's always exciting to me."