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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

"He has focused attention on things we've been screaming about for years and is moving policy around it," said Marqueece Harris-Dawson of the Community Coalition in South L.A.

Enrique Legaspi, a history teacher at Hollenbeck Middle School in Boyle Heights, respects Deasy for innovation — citing a college prep program being planned for the Eastside — and for taking a closer look at ineffective teachers.

But Deasy attracts a striking degree of criticism from within the ranks.

Anxiety is widespread among many over the superintendent's policies, most notably his push for tougher evaluations using students' test scores as one measure. Many teachers, and their union leadership, regard that as unreliable. Some observers worry that Deasy's expectations for ever-improving performance come amid historic budget cuts that have increased class sizes and slashed support programs; the superintendent said he worries about that too.

Some critics also fault Deasy for what they characterize as impulsiveness and an off-putting temper.

At Washington Prep High School last fall, Deasy dropped unannounced into a senior composition class taught by substitute teacher Patrena Shankling. Deasy angrily criticized Shankling for carrying out the assignment left by the regular teacher, calling it busywork that disrespected students. Shankling asked him to leave and Deasy allegedly retorted, "You're the one that will be leaving," before storming out, according to written statements from Shankling and students.

In a letter dated the following day, the school district fired Shankling, who was a well-regarded substitute at the school.

Shankling, who has filed a grievance against the district, declined to be interviewed. Deasy said he does not comment on grievances, but "all disrespect to a student will be addressed immediately if I see it."

Lisa Karahalios, a history teacher at Verdugo Hills High School, became disillusioned with Deasy after he vetoed the choice of teachers, parents and staff for a principal despite earlier pledges to the contrary. "A lot of teachers feel he's disconnected from what's happening in the classroom," she said.

Deasy said he used his rightful administrative authority to choose a stronger leader for the school.

Teachers were also angry over his decision to replace the Miramonte faculty.

Former teachers union President John Perez called the treatment of the Miramonte staff "criminal."

"Those people are tarred forever, and it's on Deasy's head," Perez said.

Deasy said he came up with the staff removal idea a few days after the allegations surfaced amid the specter of disruptive investigations and safety concerns. He discussed the logistics with senior staff in two days of marathon meetings. By the end, he said, agreement on the plan was "near universal." But among the senior staff members, there was widespread but unvoiced disagreement, according to several of them.

Deasy called his decision "necessary and right" and praised his staff for its "unbelievable effort."

Since then, Deasy has moved swiftly — too swiftly in the view of some — to remove or fire teachers accused of misconduct.

The superintendent also took issue with perceptions that he is autocratic. He said he constantly invites feedback, widely consults with school chiefs in New York, Boston, Chicago and elsewhere and meets regularly with his executive coach, Kevin Sharer, who heads the biotech giantAmgen Inc.

Deasy said he is firm on his goals but flexible on how to reach them: He changed his mind, he said, when staff argued that he couldn't roll out the new pilot evaluation program as quickly as he wanted.

"The sign of a good team is healthy disagreement," he said.

But he told senior staff they should resign rather than dissent from the round of controversial budget cuts. Deasy said he felt the stakes for students were too high to "fracture the team."

Up next, Deasy said, is preparing schools for new national curriculum standards. More training of teachers and administrators. Installing the evaluation system across the district. An honest reckoning with chronically underperforming schools.

But first he needs to get through this day. He begins before dawn, scanning an overnight police report. He powers through staff meetings on litigation, algebra, media strategies, performance management. He meets with the United Way, the Chamber of Commerce and former state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, takes a call from the governor, attends a League of Women Voters' evening event. After that, a dinner meeting, then home to check email and prepare for the following day's work. He turns in at 11:15 and will rise four hours later.

His favorite part of the day is school visits. At Liechty Middle School west of downtown, he shakes hands with staff, asks the principal to show him a strong and a weak teacher, visits their classrooms and asks math students to explain their work.

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