Jordan High student Alejandra Suarez, center, met L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa… (Bethany Mollenkof, Los…)
In the middle of Watts, at one of the worst-performing high schools in Los Angeles Unified, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was in his element.
As he sat with Jordan High students late last year, he shared snippets of his life story, as he's done during scores of school visits during his eight years as mayor. He was raised without a father, was kicked out of one school and dropped out of another before graduating from Roosevelt High with a 1.4 GPA — because his mother and a teacher believed in him, he told students.
"Do you believe in you?" he asked them. "I believe in you. I believe you can reach for the stars."
No other issue has stoked the mayor's personal passion as much as public education. Despite lacking any formal authority over the nation's second-largest school system, Villaraigosa has left a major imprint.
Soon after taking office in 2005, he tried to take control of L.A. Unified. When that ambitious effort failed, the school board allowed a nonprofit foundation he created to manage more than a dozen low-performing schools. He raised millions of dollars and vowed to turn the schools into incubators of reform.
His nationwide fundraising also helped elect a loyal school board majority that installed superintendents he favored. Through them, he has pushed for a brand of reform that includes tying teacher evaluations to test scores and providing more choices for parents, such as charter schools.
Along the way, the onetime teachers union organizer has confronted his former allies by challenging seniority-based layoffs and advocating a higher bar for tenure. He blasted the United Teachers Los Angeles union as "the one unwavering roadblock" to improving public education.
As he leaves office, Villaraigosa points to successes: an increase in the graduation rate to 66%. A doubling in high-performing schools, as measured by the state's Academic Performance Index, which is based on standardized test scores. An explosion in publicly financed, independent charter schools.
A Times analysis found a mixed record at the schools his nonprofit controls. Overall, the mayor's schools have performed comparably to district schools with similar demographics. Some of his schools, notably 99th Street Elementary, have seen significant improvements. But others, such as Gompers Middle School and Roosevelt High, have seen comparatively modest gains.
Villaraigosa sometimes exaggerates his effect: He has taken credit for the district's massive school-construction program, although it was firmly established by the time he took office. Overall, L.A. Unified has improved slightly faster than the state, but test scores remain below the state average. And the district's upward trend began before Villaraigosa became mayor.
L.A. Unified schools controlled by the mayor showed a range of results in the percentage of students scoring proficient or above in English and math in 2012.
California Dept. of Education
Data analysis by Sandra Poindexter
"The biggest impact Villaraigosa has had is simply changing the conversation," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "The fact that there is a debate in Los Angeles about charters and choice, about teacher support and evaluation, is due to the mayor's use of the bully pulpit."
Villaraigosa followed in the path of former Mayor Richard Riordan, who helped elect a school board that replaced a superintendent, launched the nation's largest school construction program and returned phonics to classrooms.
Recent academic gains came despite a punishing economic recession.
School board President Monica Garcia, a close ally, praised the mayor for "having the guts to do what's really hard … fighting for better in a very difficult time."
The mayor's combative style, however, has alienated key players, starting with teachers, said school board member Steve Zimmer, who beat back a Villaraigosa attempt to unseat him.
"I don't think that he's wrong in insisting that every child has a right to an excellent teacher every day," Zimmer said. "The difference is really in the pathway. Not enough care was taken to make sure that teachers felt supported."
Villaraigosa's odyssey into education began haltingly and only at the instigation of others. His pledge to take over L.A. Unified in his second bid for mayor was among a series of one-upmanship moves with incumbent James Hahn over education.
The state takeover law was challenged by the school board and ruled unconstitutional by an L.A. County Superior Court judge in 2006.
By that time, however, the mayor's Plan B was already in progress. He set out to seize de facto authority by helping elect a school board majority in 2007.