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Veteran Los Angeles principal to head arts high school

Norman Isaacs, who nurtured the arts program at Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks and founded an arts charter high school, will come out of retirement for the post. Two previous choices to lead the downtown school had backed out of the job.

October 15, 2011|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

After a difficult search process, a veteran Los Angeles principal who later started a local charter school has been chosen the newest leader of the downtown visual and performing arts high school.

Norman Isaacs, 67, was not the first or second choice of Los Angeles Unified School District officials, but he has long been viewed as a leader within and outside the school system for his role in developing and managing arts programs.

"The challenge was extremely exciting," said Isaacs, who is exiting formal retirement and will set aside his six-hour-a-day workouts for an upcoming triathlon. "I really wanted to make certain this school works. I want to do whatever it takes."

For years, Isaacs nurtured the well-regarded arts program at Millikan Middle School in the San Fernando Valley. Then he left the Los Angeles district, largely out of frustration over his unsuccessful efforts to develop a continuation of Millikan's program at nearby Grant High School.

Instead, Isaacs founded CHAMPS Charter High School of the Arts, a role that brought him into occasional conflict with his former employer. He frequently and futilely sought a campus or even part of one from the school system to house the charter school. Charters are free public schools that are independently operated.

At one point, the district agreed to provide a portion of Taft High School for the charter, but rescinded that offer over objections from students, parents and staff at Taft. They argued the presence of CHAMPS would undermine the school's own programs.

The job of leading the $232-million downtown arts high school, which just started its third year, has proved a revolving door. This summer, a school committee considered more than 30 candidates; its top choices were two educators from outside the system who'd been recruited by billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad.

Broad had pushed for an established figure from outside L.A. Unified and was willing to sweeten the district's salary offer.

But Kim Bruno, from New York City, accepted and then changed her mind. Then, last week, Rory Pullens, who heads the performing arts high school in Washington, D.C., did an about face too. He had been due to start in November. The district also has replaced three previous top administrators at the school from inside the district, in one case sparking protests.

Although Isaacs has played the piano, "I'm certainly not an artist," he said. "But I always have had appreciation of the arts and knew that the arts were a vehicle to allow children to have access to so many things."

A Pennsylvania native and economics major, Isaacs had envisioned a one-year Los Angeles teaching stint in 1969. But the job captivated him; he worked his way up through some of the most difficult schools in the system before becoming Millikan's principal in 1995.

Isaacs' background inside and outside Los Angeles Unified make him perfect for the job, said Gavin Glynn, parent of a student at the arts high school. Isaacs will lend "vision and scope," Glynn said.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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