New L.A. schools chief favors steady progress and collaboration over drastic change

Los Angeles' beleaguered school system doesn't need the aggressive shake-up some critics have called for so much as consistent, steady progress and collaboration, new schools Supt. Michelle King said in a meeting Thursday with The Times.

In her first extended interview since taking office this week, King talked more about the "listening" she intends to do in coming weeks than specific decisions she may make, suggesting that she'll take a cautious, measure-twice, cut-once approach to problems at the Los Angeles Unified School District.

"I see the district as having ... pockets of success, and I see building on the achievements we have," she said. "And then I see areas we want to strengthen."

That diplomatic style was clearly part of what won over school board members, who voted 7 to 0 to hire her this week after a five-month, nationwide search. She replaces Ramon C. Cortines, who retired in December.

King said she would not depart from current, defining board policies, including a mandate to limit suspensions and a push to make all graduates eligible to apply to a state college. The key, she said, is to resist one-size-fits-all solutions for schools.

"I stay away from: This is the way; this is the bullet," she said.

Some of the district's detractors are impatient with King's seeming patience. They point to lagging student achievement, financial problems, drift in the instruction division, a divided, sometimes fractious board, and a recent history of failed or abandoned initiatives, such as one to deliver an iPad to every student.

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"What she has provided, to her credit, is a sense of reassurance," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "What seems to be missing is a sense of urgency. And if I were the parent of a student, I think I'd be looking for a leader willing to make dramatic change to make sure my children get the education they deserve. That may be to come, but it hasn't been evident in her tone."

King said she and the school board "understand collectively the urgency needed" but repeatedly noted that she views cooperation among all those involved with the schools — students, parents, teachers and administrators — as the best way to solve problems.

"They charged me with bringing the district together," she said.

King, 54, has spent her entire 31-year career in L.A. Unified, staying mostly in the background after three years as a well-regarded principal at Hamilton High. But board members spoke of seeing a new side in interviews for the top job, of a person who is, as they put it, brimming with ideas, ready to hit the ground running.

King cited several continuing initiatives she embraces:

• Starting single-gender campuses. Two for girls are scheduled to open in the fall.

• Integrating more science concepts into all grades.

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• Expanding popular programs such as those that help students become fluent in a second language at an early age — and making sure these programs continue from the elementary grades through high school.

The new leader conceded that finding the money for such goals will be challenging.

"We won't be able to do everything," King said. "I call it a delicate dance."

An outside organization's proposed charter expansion plan, which would drain district enrollment, could make matters worse because district funding is based on student attendance.

Backers of the expansion said recently that the goal has evolved to focus on high-quality public schools of all sorts, not solely on charters. But advocates for charters opened a new front this week by suing the district over its school construction bonds, asserting that charters are not receiving their fair share. Charters are independently operated and exempt from some rules that govern traditional public schools. Most are nonunion.

When pressed about the charter proposal, which was spearheaded by the Broad Foundation, King took a loyalist's stance.

"I don't agree or support any initiative that says we're going to take over or take part of L.A. Unified's kids," King said.

She said, however, that she has no hostility toward charters: "I support all schools that serve our kids."

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

The Times receives funding for its digital initiative Education Matters from the California Endowment, the Wasserman Foundation and the Baxter Family Foundation. The California Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Los Angeles administer grants from the Broad Foundation to support this effort. Under terms of the grants, The Times retains complete control over editorial content.

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A version of this article appeared in print on January 15, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "New LAUSD chief prefers steady progress" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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