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Big Challenge Awaits Anton : New L.A. School Chief Optimistic That He Can Make a Difference

TIMES STAFF WRITER

William Anton is no magician, but he is trying to do wonders in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

On the job for just over one month as superintendent of the 610,000-student district, Anton is quickly adapting to a role where the pace is fast and the pressure high.

Anton, 66, the first Latino superintendent of the district, faces formidable challenges in trying to raise student achievement and lower a high dropout rate. Latinos make up 62% of the district’s enrollment, and of every three Latinos who enter 10th grade, one drops out before high school graduation.

“The pressure is that being a Latino, the expectation is that now I can really wave a magic wand,” Anton said. “I don’t feel a lot of pressure that way. We’ll work hard. . . .

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“I’m a realist. I see that things are not going to change overnight, but on the other hand I’m an optimist. We can change things around.”

Anton acknowledges that the job ahead of him is tough on many fronts. The school board recently slashed $220 million to balance the district’s $3.8-billion budget, and more cuts are expected. Overcrowding has necessitated a year-round school calendar, and efforts are afoot to break up the district into smaller units.

But obstacles and high expectations from others are nothing new to Anton. His family used to say when he was being raised, “Don’t forget you’re an Anton,” he said. “It was like, hey you’re somebody. You can do things.”

Anton has been spreading that type of positive message to students, parents, and teachers during his 38 years in the district as a teacher, principal and administrator.

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Anton also can draw from his experiences as a student of district schools in East Los Angeles, including Garfield High School. Anton, the seventh of 10 children, graduated from Cal State Los Angeles.

With a three-year contract and an annual salary of $164,555, Anton said he’s ready to get down to business.

Improving low student achievement is clearly high among Anton’s priorities, along with bilingual education, an area in which he plans to hire more teachers to work with the large number of Spanish-only speakers.

Also, he said the district has to improve its public relations with the Latino community. “We’ve got to give them a lot of the information. Send it in Spanish. Information is power, really. We need to keep them informed of what’s happening.”

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Anton, the father of four, said he is extremely proud of his ethnicity but considers himself a superintendent who happens to be Latino.

He wants to be known as “somebody who is working hard for all the students. I’m the superintendent of all the kids. I want the Latino community to understand that this is important for all the community.”

Others in the Latino community are taking optimistic yet cautious positions on Anton’s new job.

“I have mixed feelings” about Anton’s appointment, said Lou Negrete, professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Los Angeles. “On one hand I think it’s great to have someone familiar with the district, particularly because he’s a Hispanic. But on the other hand I have some skepticism.”

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Negrete, who has taught at Cal State L.A. for 18 years, said Anton “needs to substitute happy talk with . . . fundamental changes in the schools. The dropout rate is just atrocious. With over 30 years of experience, I hope that now he can use his skills and knowledge to make those changes.”

Others are certain that Anton’s long experience in the district will help his work with the community.

“He understands the principals, the region intimately well, and the particular problems of the school district,” said Antonia Hernandez, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Some district observers expected Anton to be promoted from deputy superintendent to the top job in 1987 after a yearlong search to replace Harry Handler. But the school board appointed Leonard Britton, who was then superintendent in Dade County, Fla.

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In a letter last month to school board President Jackie Goldberg, Britton announced he planned to leave when his contract expired in June, 1991. Just a few days later, after closed-door sessions to discuss the matter, Goldberg announced that Britton’s contract had been bought out and that Anton had been appointed.

That brought criticism from Kids 1st, a new partnership of California business representatives and five grass-roots community groups in Los Angeles County.

“We don’t have a problem with the fact that they selected Superintendent Anton,” said Rosalinda Lugo, a Kids 1st member. “What we have a problem with is the process that they used. They didn’t include any kind of input from community people or anybody else.

“We have nothing against the superintendent right now. We want him to succeed, because if he succeeds then our kids succeed. But the only way he’s going to succeed is if he gets the parents behind him, and that’s not going to happen if they continue to have these meetings behind closed doors.”

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