Dealing with its alarmingly high dropout rate should be a higher priority than test scores for the Los Angeles Unified School District, Ramon C. Cortines said in his first interview since being named senior deputy superintendent Tuesday.
Because students who drop out often are low achievers, he warned, keeping them in school could well impede -- at least initially -- a rise in test scores.
Indicating that he planned to shake up things, Cortines, 75, said he also would revisit the phonics-based reading program he helped install eight years ago, work to shrink and decentralize the district's much-criticized bureaucracy, improve science and arts instruction and increase student access to college-prep classes.
And he pledged greater openness, saying the district needed to acknowledge its failures as the prelude to addressing them.
"People in the district are afraid if it is bad news," Cortines said. "I'm not afraid. If we don't know what the facts are, how can we prescriptively design an instruction program that meets the needs of the kids?"
Cortines drew widespread praise in 2000 when he served as interim superintendent for six months after the Board of Education ousted then-Supt. Ruben Zacarias.
This time around, he said, his goal is to support Supt. David L. Brewer, who has faced nagging questions about his own performance and an impatient school board. Brewer, a retired vice admiral, had no background in K-12 education before his hiring 17 months ago.
Civic leaders and school board members praised Brewer for his willingness to hire a high-profile, plain-speaking independent as second in command. Cortines has vastly more education experience than his new boss, having headed school districts in New York City, San Francisco, San Jose and Pasadena.
"We needed someone with instruction expertise," board member Marlene Canter said. "This appointment shows that Supt. Brewer puts students' interests ahead of any other agenda."
Cortines says he is motivated by the education challenge alone and has no interest in overshadowing the superintendent. Cortines, who will make $250,000 a year, agreed to an at-will contract, meaning Brewer can dismiss him without notice.
Last year, at a public forum, Cortines complained about how the district's "damn bureaucracy" was withholding tabulations of dropouts. Within days of applying public pressure, Cortines got the statistics he had requested, but he said he remained dissatisfied with the quality and coherence of information.
He said he would insist on getting an accurate picture of just how many students drop out and why. Then he will enlist principals and their supervisors to address the problem -- and hold them accountable for doing so.
"You can't get to achievement if you don't try to keep the kids in school," he said
In a departure from the top-down structure favored by former Supt. Roy Romer, Cortines said he shared Brewer's desire to give more responsibility to regional administrators and principals: "They're going to have to rise to that. That means making decisions and taking risks."
He also said he would carefully evaluate the phonics-based Open Court reading program. In 2000, in concert with the school board, Cortines required nearly all elementary schools to adopt the program. Open Court was subsequently embraced by Romer, and its use corresponded with a substantial rise in elementary reading scores.
But Cortines always worried about whether the highly structured program was appropriate for students not yet fully proficient in English.
Research shows that these students need much more than skills in decoding words, said Cortines, who added: "I would've modified Open Court so you have managed instruction but more flexibility as it relates to language development."
During his earlier stint, Cortines developed a plan to dramatically shrink the district's central administration while granting sweeping authority to regional superintendents as part of an effort to bring decisions closer to schools and parents.
Now Cortines has another shot -- and a kindred thinker in Brewer. Slashing the central office may become a financial imperative given the state budget vise: The district must identify $460 million in possible cuts.
After leaving L.A. Unified, Cortines worked as a consultant -- often free of charge -- and served on boards, including that of J. Paul Getty Trust. He even tried "sitting by the pool and reading," but as he put it, "I've flunked retirement about five times."
As deputy mayor since August 2006, he was especially valuable to Villaraigosa because he maintained cordial relations with top school district officials and union leaders.
"His hiring will only enhance the partnership between the city of Los Angeles and L.A. Unified, and will accelerate the reforms and change we need now," Villaraigosa said Wednesday. "The timing couldn't be better. Ray brings a deep and profound sense of urgency that I think this school district needs right now."