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No More Mr. Nice Guy?

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Carrying two briefcases--one soft-sided, one hard, both filled to bloat--Day Higuchi can be spotted frequently hurrying through the corridors at Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters, late for an important appointment.

If it’s a typical day for Higuchi, he left his Silver Lake home before 7 a.m. for a power breakfast--with a politician, perhaps, or a national labor union leader--and he may not return until near midnight, when he will raid his refrigerator for leftovers.

“I’m sort of getting used to it,” he explains, matter-of-factly. Yet his ready acceptance of the sheer frenzy of this existence--mocked by the overlapping jumble of marks on his calendar--belies his discomfort with the metamorphosis he must complete.

At 54, Higuchi, the ultimate behind-the-scenes man, is about to take over one of the most public posts in this region: at one minute past midnight tonight he becomes president of United Teachers-Los Angeles, a powerhouse among the nation’s educators’ locals and second only to New York’s in scale.

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That filling the role played the past six years by media-savvy Helen Bernstein will be difficult is not disputed, least of all by Higuchi. But debate erupts over whether his style--more professorial than confrontational--will be a better fit for the immediate future of the 27,000-member organization.

Within the union, teachers who have worked most closely on school reform with the outspoken Bernstein are skeptical that Higuchi can keep up the momentum, not to mention win their loyalty. Those who have weathered Bernstein’s scorching temper welcome a chance for redemption.

On the outside, school district officials are gleeful about what they perceive as a significant shift toward reasonableness, which they say is crucial as the district tries to achieve a delicate balance: defending itself against breakup proponents by preaching the wonders of education reform, while trying to patch the proliferating holes in that same reform program.

“We find him to be a very sincere guy and not vitriolic,” says Eli Brent, president of the school administrators’ union. “Helen’s thrust is that to have reform, you have to hit someone over the head. . . . I think Day will see the big picture.”

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But some up on the Hill--as the district’s headquarters is commonly known--warn that Higuchi’s resolve may eclipse Bernstein’s.

Many administrators believe “he won’t be in their face. . . . They see him as this well-intentioned guy caught in the corner,” says school board member David Tokofsky, a former teacher who won a tough runoff election last year with union support. “Day is even more persistent in many ways because he walks the halls of the [administration] building. He is right there at your door, saying, ‘We need to talk about this now.’ ”

His wife, elementary school teacher Charlotte Higuchi, says: “He won’t yell at you, he won’t scream at you, he won’t call you names, but he will not give up.”

Such relentless follow-through catches those who do not know Higuchi well off guard. They are fooled by the qualities that lead to descriptions of him as the absent-minded professor incarnate.

His wire-rimmed glasses are always slightly askew. He sets his watch seven minutes ahead, but runs chronically late and sometimes completely forgets appointments, including the main interview for this story. Every surface in his office is covered with 3-foot-high piles of paper, at the bottom of which are urgent memos from 1994.

“It was always the joke of UTLA, ‘Does anybody have a clue where this man is?’ ” says Bernstein, who leaves the union reluctantly after serving the maximum term as its president. “When you found him, he was always doing something important, but he’d just forgotten to tell anyone.”

During his six years as vice president, those important tasks included staging a mock funeral for public education following state budget cuts in 1992, during which a caravan of 10,000 cars tied up traffic at Los Angeles International Airport for four hours.

He also developed large portions of the doctrine guiding the district’s major reform program, the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now--or LEARN--which gives more decision-making authority to teachers, parents and administrators at individual campuses that agree to sign on.

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It is his tendency to dive into many challenges at once that seems to conspire against Higuchi’s stated desire to be more organized. At UCLA he was trained in philosophy and chemistry, and in math and English (in part, he explains, he avoided the draft by taking enough course work to acquire a master’s degree and six teaching credentials).

His communication style is intense and direct. At the last meeting of the union’s House of Representatives, Higuchi paused on his way to the cabinet members’ table to do his version of schmoozing: a series of in-depth, one-on-one conversations. He stopped to tell social studies teacher Joshua Pechthalt, in great detail, about a work-study program that might be a good fit for his students at Manual Arts High.

Pechthalt was Higuchi’s major opponent in the spring race for president, netting 20% of the vote to Higuchi’s 69% in an election in which only 7,500 of the 27,000 eligible teachers voted. And Pechthalt is among the Bernstein foes who is glad for a change.

“There were a handful of us who were willing to stand up and disagree with Helen and we were smashed for it,” he says. “Day operates in a more democratic way.”

Higuchi’s brand of democracy does not lend itself to glib speeches and sound bites. Where Bernstein was always ready with a sarcastic comment, a scathing criticism, he is more likely to launch into a treatise on the pros and cons, loaded with technical terms.

During a recent school board hearing about creating benchmarks for student learning--a pet project of Higuchi’s for the past six years--he rose to speak. His topic: “Systemic process for continuous improvement.”

“I know many of you may wonder what that means,” he said in his perpetual monotone. “It simply means reflective practice should come to permeate the system.”

The length and convolution of Higuchi’s speeches were legendary during faculty meetings at Griffith Junior High on the Eastside, where he taught for 21 years and served as union representative.

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“He was forever being teased about, ‘OK, Day, you only have so many minutes to say this,’ ” said Liliam Castillo, Higuchi’s principal at Griffith and now an assistant district superintendent.

His style prompted much hilarity in the men’s room during one speech, where one listener recalls seeking refuge from the droning on and on, only to meet several others there, who asked, “Is he done yet?”

That trait may not be quite so amusing if and when the time comes to rekindle waning enthusiasm about school reform or whip union members into the fury that precedes a strike.

“He’s a good negotiator, he can write contract language, but I think 90% of a leadership role is being able to talk to the public,” says Phyllis Gudoski, a lead teacher in reform from her post at Strathern Elementary’s preschool. “He’s a bright man . . . but he’s not a front man.”

Higuchi is aware that public speaking is not his strong suit. He hopes that with practice he will improve, he says, but he knows he will hardly be a match for Bernstein, his mentor and one of his most enthusiastic supporters.

“I can’t predict how I’m going to be,” he says. “But can I be Helen? I doubt it. I don’t have the same personality.”

Some have even suggested speech classes, but he makes it clear that he is consumed by more pressing concerns at present.

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For a meager raise of $195 over his $69,719 salary as union vice president--and a few perquisites such as his first cellular phone--Higuchi now assumes control of a $7-million union budget and the charge of trying to influence how the district spends its $4-billion budget.

He has a two-year reprieve from time-consuming contract negotiations--after years of pay cuts and strike threats, in 1995 Bernstein negotiated a three-year contract with the district--but faces challenges of his own.

“The bad times, the cloud that fell over UTLA these last years and the clawing back, is not the headache Day is going to have,” Bernstein says. “On the other hand, Day is certainly inheriting the nightmare of breakup, and that is no small nightmare. And the people who were the naysayers about LEARN? I could pretty much ignore them, but now it’s coming down to their schools.”

As union president, Higuchi must protect the rights and meet the demands of teachers spread from the South Bay to Sylmar. Rampant retirements and resignations since the last teachers’ strike in 1989 have turned over half of the teaching slots to young teachers, creating a generation gap between those new members and the decades-older union leaders.

Those novice teachers have no history of union loyalty--no time logged on picket lines, no direct knowledge of demoralizing working conditions before 1978, when the first contract was signed.

Instead, they are desperately trying to figure out how to apply what they learned in college, or in smaller school systems, to the dizzyingly complex urban classroom.

“For the first two years a teacher is in the classroom here, it’s about survival,” says Steve Zimmer, a 26-year-old teacher at Marshall High. “The only real question then is, ‘Is the union part of my survival?’ ” Too often, Zimmer and others say, the answer is no.

Higuchi vividly remembers his own first year of teaching at Griffith, which he said was “pretty much a disaster.” Now he believes the union must both win the loyalty of young teachers by helping them succeed in the classroom and ensure its survival by grooming them to be future leaders.

Even though Higuchi left the classroom in 1990 to become a full-time union leader, teacher training has continued to be his forte at UTLA.

Invigorating younger teachers--closer to their students in age and idealism--may also help the union tackle another critical problem: its sagging credibility with minority parents, who now form a majority in Los Angeles Unified.

Troubling signs of this rift surface frequently but perhaps never as publicly as in December when newspapers quoted Bernstein calling school board member Barbara Boudreaux--who is black--"a racist bitch.” Bernstein was responding to Boudreaux’s accusations that white teachers were blocking a budding independent charter school movement in the schools feeding into Crenshaw and Dorsey highs.

Bernstein apologized, but the comment drew fire from African American community leaders and revealed a troubling perception among many minority parents: that white teachers did not really care about their kids and were allowing them to be left behind as reform swept through the district. Their proof: precious few campuses in South Los Angeles and the Eastside have volunteered to join LEARN in its first three years.

*

That same message is the mantra of organizers of the Inner City Unified School District Assn., which has filed the first bid to secede from the district since streamlined breakup legislation became law earlier this year.

“Day’s got to really make his constituents [union members] understand the kind of volatile situation they are involved in,” says Virgil Roberts, an attorney long involved in public education reform in Los Angeles.

Roberts’ confidence in Higuchi’s ability to solve the problem dates from the early days of LEARN, when Roberts led an 80-person community task force charged with setting goals for educator accountability and student assessment. Although Higuchi was by no measure the most influential or outspoken member of the group, he gradually emerged as a leader.

“As he would speak over time, people began to listen,” Roberts says.

Already Higuchi has launched a campaign to deal with distrust of the union and the district by highlighting the goals they share with others committed to the survival of public education.

Called “Lessons for Life” and sponsored by the union and one of its two national affiliates, the American Federation of Teachers, the effort focuses on circulating petitions among people who have contact with schools--from teachers to parents to community activists--endorsing basic principles of school conduct, safety and academic achievement.

Nothing in the petition is cutting edge or controversial, but that, Higuchi says, is the key. Common ground, or as he puts it: “Everybody knows the issues which divide us. . . . But we have to work harder on the issues that unite us.”

A symbol of that outreach--a comprehensive list of the community groups--is posted on a wall inside the union’s aging West 3rd Street office, for the first time in its 26-year history.

Meeting to discuss Lessons for Life campaign strategies over breakfast at Langer’s deli in MacArthur Park with a national union representative from San Francisco, Higuchi suggested that he may be less of a target for minority parents than Bernstein because he grew up on the Eastside and is Japanese American.

“I’ve never capitalized on it, but the fact is, I do have a different face,” he said.

AFT representative Marilyn Atkinson paused between bites of toast to take a long look at Higuchi.

“Yes and you have a different approach too,” she said, advising him to make a point of visiting schools daily. “Members all over this city need to see Day Higuchi.”

Higuchi will confront his first tough test next year, when the district and union must decide how far they will go to compel reluctant schools to embrace the LEARN reforms. Three-quarters of a school’s teaching staff must agree to join LEARN, and more than half the district’s 650 schools have not yet signed on.

Recruitment for LEARN is where Bernstein excelled. She first persuaded the union to become a partner in the reforms when other unions were shunning such changes. Then she traveled to wavering schools with a posse of LEARN teachers and religiously attended the annual retreats to deliver inspiring speeches before new LEARN members.

Although skeptics remain, there is a growing belief in the reform community that the final push to get all the district’s schools involved in LEARN is when Higuchi’s skills could truly pay off.

“His fine hand is going to be what we need in reform,” says Mike Roos, executive director of LEARN. “It will be a matter of holding small meetings, developing a consensus for things that continue to motivate people. . . . Day is extremely good at that.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Day Higuchi

Age: 54.

Background: Born in Los Angeles; lives in Silver Lake area.

Family: Married to teacher Charlotte Higuchi. One daughter, Keri, 25, an aspiring director.

Interests: Surf fishing (which he hasn’t found time for in 10 years), swimming and walking around the Silver Lake Reservoir.

Higuchi on his role as UTLA vice president: “There’s an advantage to not actually being the president. You can define what you’re interested in and kind of do it quietly.”

Higuchi on the contrast between his style and that of outgoing President Helen Bernstein: “Helen had a very personalized approach. She was very visible and accessible to schools, which is good, but some of our internal organization is pretty messy. I want to work on that.”

Higuchi on his fledgling efforts to interact with parent and community groups: “For the first time in history, UTLA actually has a list of community-based organizations on the wall. We’ve always been seen as a Lone Ranger.”


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