Garfield principal steps up to challenge

Times Staff Writer

Garfield High School Principal Omar Del Cueto operated on pure instinct when he rushed to the campus two weeks ago, its historic auditorium consumed by flames, to document the destruction of one of East Los Angeles’ enduring symbols.

Since then, his PowerPoint presentation of haunting, graphic images has been shown to students, staff, community leaders and politicians. It functions not only as a record of loss but also as a catalyst to make it through the semester, rebuild the 1925 auditorium to its former glory and unify a campus that has been strained by low achievement.

Del Cueto had been principal only nine months when the May 20 fire thrust him into a role as spokesman and symbol of the school. If laughter is the antidote to misery, his arrival may have been fortuitous. His sober pronouncements are leavened by a wry sense of humor that has kept the campus on an even keel.


He is determined that the fire and its aftermath -- which includes frequent invasions by the media, all manner of inspectors, teary-eyed alumni and a politician or two or three -- will not set back his goal of improving test scores and preparing his mostly low-income, Latino students for life beyond the school doors.

But the challenges are formidable. The fire occurred just as students were preparing for state standardized tests, which had to be postponed for several days. Garfield ranks in the lowest tier in California’s Academic Performance Index, with a 2006 score of 528. The statewide goal is 800.

In addition, Del Cueto recently lost a close staff vote to institute several reforms that would have included fewer and longer class periods, greater teacher collaboration and adding an advisory period focusing less on curriculum and more on early intervention and individual assessment. The school’s union representative was unavailable for comment.

But Del Cueto is nothing if not determined, and he said he thinks the campus will come to embrace his methods, which he used to raise scores at Luther Burbank Middle School in Highland Park, where he was principal before coming to Garfield.

He believes he’ll get there by using humor, quoting everyone from Sophocles to Albert Einstein and reminding all of the Bulldog ethos of Garfield, a school portrayed in the movie “Stand and Deliver,” which chronicled the exploits of another advocate of passion in teaching: math instructor Jaime Escalante.

“Building a professional learning system, even in the middle of a tragedy -- that doesn’t get suspended,” Del Cueto said last week during a rare pause in activity.

Carmen N. Schroeder, superintendent of the local district that includes Garfield, said she hired Del Cueto because his resume included a “rare” combination of strong instructional and operational skills.

She said she has been impressed with his hands-on management and quick analysis of what was needed to keep the school running.

“I could tell he was ready to take on any kind of emergency that impacted the school,” Schroeder said. “As tragic as the fire is, it has helped to build a sense of community, common goals and vision. The teachers and administrative staff have also been remarkable and stepped up to the plate.”

Del Cueto, 50, was born in Havana but grew up in New York, where he had moved with his family at age 5.

He attended Manhattan College and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He did an internship in marriage and family counseling but became disillusioned when he found that he mostly was a referee.

He is a self-described geek who took computer courses in school, so when psychology didn’t pan out he looked west, eager to use the sophisticated equipment found in the Hollywood music industry.

Del Cueto was a second engineer in a recording studio working on then state-of-the-art 32-channel recording systems. But that too was a disappointment.

“You don’t know what it’s like until you’ve sat all night listening to just a horn track over and over,” Del Cueto said, laughing. “But you have to try it.”

He worked toting gear at some of Los Angeles’ most famous music emporiums, setting up sound systems and then breaking them down and loading them onto trucks. Del Cueto saw Marvin Gaye’s last performance at the Greek Theatre and remembers the tractor-trailers full of equipment needed to support Michael Jackson’s concerts.

It was a nice break from cerebral pursuits, but he was beginning to long for more social interaction and a sense of mission.

In 1981, Del Cueto was working as stage manager during a slow stretch at the Florentine Gardens, a Hollywood club, when he saw a newspaper ad seeking bilingual math and science teachers.

He soon found himself in a homeroom at John Adams Junior High that had gone through a dozen substitutes.

He said one “snotty” student approached him and said, “We’ve been through 12. I wonder how long you’ll last.” He determined then to stick it out just to spite them.

Through the years, he has taught science, math and social studies, worked as a credentialed bilingual counselor, been a dean of students, a district operations officer and an assistant principal. Del Cueto ended up hiring the snotty student as a special education teacher at Luther Burbank.

Del Cueto met his wife, Linda, in 1984 while she was teaching at Chester W. Nimitz Middle School. She was just named a local district superintendent.

The couple live in La Canada Flintridge and have a 12-year-old son, Mario Luis.

Ramon S. Castillo, vice president of student services at Los Angeles Trade Tech College, has known Del Cueto for more than 15 years and is a neighbor.

He hired Del Cueto when he was principal at Wilson High School to be his bilingual coordinator and has since offered career guidance.

Castillo said Del Cueto’s upbeat personality has fostered a sense of ease among students and staff since the fire.

Del Cueto, he said, has always overflowed with ideas, including a stadium video system he half-jokingly dubbed “Wilsonvision” while the two were at that school.

“He’s a visionary in seeing what is not there yet,” Castillo said. “It’s important to be able to envision the rebuilding of that auditorium and raising test scores.”

Del Cueto said he had long wanted to come to Garfield -- first seeking the principal job in 1998. The bonds of alumni and its tradition-rich rivalry with Roosevelt High School were big attractions.

“There is a bond in East Los Angeles that’s like USC or UCLA; you’re either a Bulldog or a Roughrider. I wanted to be a part of that,” he said.

He wants to leave a legacy of student achievement, teacher excellence and fraternity like that he felt within the tight-knit group of teachers who mentored him at John Adams.

“I’d like someday in the future to draw parallels to Jaime Escalante, who communicated to students the importance of attempting and achieving high quality work,” said Del Cueto, who considers his job to be the principal teacher at the school.

“We have to overcome the folklore that keeps us from being the best: ‘It’s East L.A.; they’re poor.’ Those are significant challenges but the most important factor is the quality of teaching, and we can change that. We have to charge hard, but to do anything less is stealing the money.”