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Brewer denounces 'low expectations'

The L.A. schools chief says administrators will be held accountable for student achievement.

August 25, 2007|Howard Blume and Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writers

In his first formal speech to administrators, Los Angeles Schools Supt. David L. Brewer told principals and managers Friday that they must change both themselves and a pervasive culture of "low expectations for brown and black children," adding that they would receive mandatory leadership training and support but also would be held accountable for student achievement.

Brewer, a devotee of management books, set out eight principles -- including creating "a sense of urgency," "building a team" and "communicating a vision" -- that he expects principals and others to follow.

In a later interview, Brewer said the Los Angeles Unified School District would launch a pilot management-training program, with courses shaped by input from universities, outside consultant firms and corporations.

"We're going to teach you how to change," Brewer told his audience, promising "world-class leadership and management training" as well as real support from higher-ups. "You're going to need it," he said.

Many of the roughly 1,500 administrators in attendance took notes on stationery provided free by a credit union that was trying to drum up business. After Brewer's morning speech at a hall in the Los Angeles Convention Center, "inspirational" was the adjective of choice for many.

Brewer delivered his speech against a backdrop of discord among his own bosses, the elected Board of Education. In a sharply worded memo, one board member accused the new board president of playing politics by rewarding allies of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and punishing his critics.

Speaking to those assembled, the superintendent echoed management guru and author Jim Collins -- a Brewer favorite -- as he spoke of data-driven analysis and a need to face "brutal" facts, including, for example, that more than 40% of district students were scoring "below basic" on state tests.

"We want to take the emotion and anecdotal-ness out of our decision-making," as well as the politics, he said. "The numbers will set you free.

"What I have found in this district: We don't have any accountability," he said. At that moment, a single word was projected onto screens on both sides of the massive hall: accountability.

That's also when one graying administrator in a navy blue suit, who'd begun taking notes on the eight dictums, abandoned the effort halfway and plunged his face into the palm of his left hand.

Many administrators talk of being under heavy pressure to improve schools in recent years. But Brewer based his assertion on academic results that show persisting low student achievement at dozens of schools in the nation's second-largest public school system.

When Brewer said "failure will no longer be an option," his words drew barely concealed snickers as well as polite applause. But the applause was long when Brewer finished with: "If you give up, this country as we know it will not exist."

The tone contrasted sharply with a speech given last year by retiring Supt. Roy Romer, who lauded the massive school-construction program and test scores that had generally risen faster than in the state at large, especially at elementary schools.

"It was different from past years when the focus was on all the good things and the progress we were making," said Daniel Bagby, an administrative specialist. "This did start to create a sense of urgency. The message today was that we're not doing so hot."

"I'm not inspired," said one administrator who declined to give her name as she strode out.

"He has to be tough," said Jody Doram, an assistant principal at 68th Street Elementary School. "People are listening to his message. It's time for strong leadership."

School board President Monica Garcia called Brewer's speech an "honest assessment of the place of where we are starting from. . . . Certainly the crowd was mixed. People are wondering, 'What does this mean for me?' "

A couple of seats away on the VIP dais, another board member was pondering pointed questions for Garcia, regarding her planned assignments for board colleagues. In a memo from Garcia, only mayoral allies were picked to represent the district to outside organizations.

"I am appalled by the antics communicated in this memo," board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte wrote in an e-mail to Garcia. LaMotte called the assignments "blatantly and externally political," meant to reward Villaraigosa allies, who now control a board majority, and to punish those who successfully sued to block the mayor's attempt to gain statutory authority over L.A. Unified.

Garcia said later that she welcomed feedback from her colleagues.

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howard.blume@latimes.com

joel.rubin@latimes.com

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