In a rare gathering of every principal in the Los Angeles school district, Supt. Sid Thompson directed school leaders to strictly enforce the district’s expulsion policy for students caught with a gun and to bolster their bilingual education programs.
Thompson’s speech at East Los Angeles College took on the air of a “State of the District Address,” punctuated by loud applause when he promised that the bureaucracy will be more responsive to schools and stated his intention to bring about “a time of change” as the embattled district prepares for the fall semester that begins Tuesday.
He prefaced the upbeat speech by ordering principals to remind all students about the district’s weapons policy, which calls for expulsion of students caught carrying a gun or other weapon to school.
“Every young person must know that they do not, under any circumstance, bring a gun to school. . . . We have a firm policy,” Thompson said, reflecting the major school safety concerns among parents and students in the wake of two recent fatal campus shootings.
He also told principals that they must make a bigger commitment to improving bilingual education, despite the emotional statewide debate over whether students should be taught core courses in their native languages.
Thompson stressed that all students with English language deficiencies--including Latinos, Asians and African-Americans--must be better served by the district’s overall policy on bilingual education. He said the newly formed office of school instruction can offer guidance.
“Our commitment is to language development for all our children,” Thompson said.
Although the overwhelming majority of the district’s 280,000 limited English speaking students speak Spanish, Thompson’s comments were targeted at increasing demands from some African-American parents for the district to improve their children’s English skills.
“This is the one time I am going to give you two primary directives,” Thompson said of the orders. “It’s a direction from my office and the Board of Education.”
The school chief, who spoke from handwritten notes, dedicated the rest of his speech to morale-boosting and explaining his restructuring effort during what he says is a critical year for the district. All seven school board members sat front row, center. His top administrators flanked the aisle seats.
The talk was part of Thompson’s drive to polish the tarnished image of the school district, which has been buffeted by a bitter labor dispute with teachers and has endured large budget cuts. A recent management audit criticized the district’s bureaucracy. The district itself is the target of a breakup movement.
“Big, fat and ugly, we’ve made it. Yeah, that’s what they call us, they have these terms for us. But we are not buying that anymore,” Thompson said. “I’m not apologizing for this system. I’m standing up and giving it a pat on the back because it’s a darn good system. You are good administrators and we have good teachers.”
He said his newly streamlined administration is committed to bringing quick service to schools and emphasized that administrator salaries were cut to be more closely in line with the average annual principal salary of $84,000.
In a remark that drew loud applause, Thompson said district maintenance employees will work over the holiday weekend to deliver school supplies for the opening of classes.
Thompson stressed that accountability among administrators, principals and teachers will be a major theme throughout his administration. Staff will be evaluated and student achievement will be more carefully measured.
“This says to the public we have standards, we have expectations,” he said.
School board President Leticia Quezada said principals this year will begin to see the board’s commitment to overhauling the district through the LEARN reform plan, which gives decision-making authority on school operations to principals.
“We will fight very hard not to meddle in your affairs,” Quezada said.
After the speeches, several principals said the verbal pats on the back were a refreshing change from the crisis management that characterized much of the previous school year as teachers threatened to strike and the district finances were on the brink of bankruptcy.
“I think we were all very inspired,” said Beatrice LaPisto of Glassell Park Elementary School. “We are all tired of being at each other.”
One principal was surprised that her schoolyard fence was promptly fixed. “Maybe Sid is making good on what he says.”