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L.A. schools chief pushes to change system's culture

Some see John Deasy as a dynamic leader morally driven to give all students a quality education. Others see a relentless taskmaster intolerant of dissent. He admits impatience but otherwise has no apologies.

April 08, 2012|By Teresa Watanabe and Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy jokes with Christopher Palma-Cruz, right, and Luisa Garcia at Figueroa Street Elementary School as the "Food For Thought" program is launched last month. School visits are the favorite part of Deasy's day.
L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy jokes with Christopher Palma-Cruz, right,… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)

It's 7:30 a.m. and the chief of the Los Angeles Unified School District briskly launches a powwow on the sensitive topic of how to place the strongest math teachers with the weakest students.

Supt. John Deasy leads two dozen administrators through statistics showing the schools where the district's most effective algebra instructors teach. They brainstorm incentives to get principals and teachers to buy into the plan, aimed at raising abysmal scores on state math tests. Some may believe it a waste to put their best with the worst, one administrator cautions, but Deasy's response is quick and characteristically blunt:

"You really shouldn't teach in LAUSD if you believe that," he says.

He pledges to act on the issue, asks the administrators for similar commitments and reminds them of their pace: "as many things as fast as possible." He adjourns at 9:29 a.m. — one minute early. Then on to the rest of his 20-hour day.

Nearly a year after Deasy, 51, took over as head of the nation's second-largest school district, it is too soon to judge him on his own performance targets — boosting student test scores, for instance.

But Deasy is pushing to change the culture of a behemoth school system with 660,000 students on 743 campuses across 710 square miles of urban sprawl. Some see Deasy as a dynamic leader driven by a moral urgency to give all students a quality education. But others view him as a relentless taskmaster intolerant of dissent.

"Either you do what he wants or you're gone," said one senior administrator who, like most senior aides and top administrators contacted, asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Antonia Hernandez, president of the California Community Foundation, is one of many civic leaders who believes Deasy should press harder to improve a district where just over half the students graduate on time and half are not proficient in reading and math.

"We all know what LAUSD has been doing in the past hasn't worked," she said. "He needs to be even more aggressive. People are hungry for leadership."

Deasy admits he can be impatient and undiplomatic but otherwise makes no apologies for his style. He says he wants to find common ground with teachers and administrators; consensus is his preference rather than his priority.

"This place has been paralyzed by a culture of fear to do anything independent in leadership," Deasy said. Now, he said, "we get things done."

The wiry superintendent, a Massachusetts native who married his high school sweetheart and has three grown children, arrives at his office by 4:30 a.m. and still manages to squeeze in a three-mile run. In a recent interview, he ticked off his team's proudest accomplishments so far:

A new contract with the teachers union allowing more decision-making at the campus level. A program to evaluate principals and teachers using student test scores and other yardsticks. The enhanced use of data to manage and measure performance. The settlement of a class-action lawsuit to protect struggling schools from devastating layoffs. A more discerning tenure process. New efforts to raise money. More healthful school menus.

To get results, Deasy eschews the endless deliberation characteristic of academia and acts with startling speed. The clearest example was his quick decision to replace the entire staff at Miramonte Elementary School after a current and a former teacher there were arrested on suspicion of lewd conduct.

Putting kids first requires "professional courage," Deasy says.

His conference room prominently displays color-coded charts tracking progress toward his five key goals — some of which have never been achieved anywhere: 100% graduation and attendance, academic proficiency for all students, more parent engagement and improved school safety.

The increasing focus on data has helped transform the process for granting tenure. In the past, nearly every teacher earned that permanent status. But in the Deasy regime, teachers are more closely scrutinized for their classroom management, ability to raise test scores, adherence to lesson plans and other factors. In the last year, fewer than half of eligible teachers achieved tenure, Deasy said. Those who didn't lost their jobs.

Deasy and his team have also used data to tackle issues that community activists say have long been ignored: Why, for example, are black and Latino boys disproportionately suspended from school and how does that affect their dropout rates? The district now monitors and reports disciplinary actions against students by race and poverty every month; since then, he said, suspension and expulsion rates have dropped markedly.

Deasy's actions have been widely hailed by local leaders from such diverse organizations as the Chamber of Commerce, the United Way, the Urban League and InnerCity Struggle, an Eastside community group.

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