AS PROTESTS GO, it was classic L.A. On a balmy afternoon a week ago, a couple of hundred demonstrators marched noisily but peaceably on the sidewalks outside the downtown headquarters of the Los Angeles Unified School District board. Many of the marchers were teachers, but many more were students, parents, community activists and just plain folk.
What linked these usually disparate sorts was one man, Alex Caputo-Pearl. A 38-year-old history teacher, Caputo-Pearl was one of Crenshaw High School’s most popular and progressive teachers but was transferred against his will at the beginning of the year. His cause is making a bit of history by galvanizing folks across organizational lines and beyond the gray, insulated universe of the school district.
During the rally before the board meeting, speaker after speaker mounted the back of a pickup to give testimonials for Caputo-Pearl, also known as Mr. C. or Mr. C. P. Perhaps the most memorable moment was provided by Maynard Brown, dressed in a dapper suit and tie that bespoke his position as coordinator of Crenshaw High’s business academy. He nonetheless concluded his remarks by thrusting a fist in the air, a la Angela Davis, and declaring: “Power to the people!”
The groundswell is hardly surprising. Caputo-Pearl is a 14-year teacher who entered the profession with the idea of making public schools a forum for grass-roots organizing and social justice. He wanted to make education reform more than a subject of debate in district offices and boardrooms (or on newspaper opinion pages); he wanted to make it a real community cause.
He began his teaching career in Compton and eventually made his way to Crenshaw High, where the need for reform has been obvious for decades. Crenshaw is where Caputo-Pearl taught for the last five years and where he has been the teachers union chapter chairman for the last four. And it is where he has greatly aided a coalition of parents, teachers and citizens who helped Crenshaw regain the accreditation it lost last year. Working with the school district -- testily at times -- the coalition scored a victory when Crenshaw’s accreditation was temporarily restored in February.
Caputo-Pearl is the first to admit that the process was not easy. “We pushed a new principal to do stuff he didn’t want to do, like coming to coalition meetings regularly,” he said. That was the small stuff; the coalition also pushed to secure millions of dollars to buy computers and other resources. And when the district proposed slashing the teaching staff last year when Crenshaw’s enrollment dipped after it lost its accreditation, the coalition argued against it -- and won.
Schools Supt. Roy Romer himself sat down with coalition members twice last year to negotiate an improvement plan. Caputo-Pearl described the sessions as tough at times, but fruitful. “He didn’t get everything he wanted,” he said. “But neither did we.”
Evidently there’s such a thing as too much cooperation. Just before the start of the school year, Caputo-Pearl was yanked from Crenshaw by a district official who claimed that he was impeding the accreditation process by “undermining morale.” He was transferred to Emerson Middle School in West L.A., where students are younger and not quite ready for the kind of activism that flowered at Crenshaw.
But while Caputo-Pearl fights for reinstatement at Crenshaw, he isn’t exactly out of the picture. As a Crenshaw resident (he lives blocks from the school) he remains a member of the coalition. Supporters expect no less. “We’re not going to take this lying down,” said Rhonda Adway, whose granddaughter, niece and nephew attend Crenshaw. “Alex goes out of his way for you,” she said. “Here’s a guy who wants to be at Crenshaw, a place that needs qualified teachers; now we’ve got a long-term substitute. They’re moving a good teacher just because he’s not a yes man.”
Caputo-Pearl is grateful for the publicity but also a bit conflicted by it. He’s a devotee of collective action who strives to avoid the limelight on principle (and by nature; though passionate, he is surprisingly laid back, with the most devastating monotone of anyone I’ve ever met). But a limelight is a golden opportunity to illuminate issues too often overlooked as too wonky or passe: inadequate and unequal school resources, racial justice, accountability.
Caputo-Pearl is the face those issues need -- a white face, as it happens, which conflicts him that much more in a community overwhelmingly black and brown. But it’s visibility, and he’ll take it. So will everyone else.