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L.A. school district replaces first principal of new downtown arts campus

The rocky voyage of the city’s flagship arts campus took a new turn Monday with the removal of the downtown high school’s first and only principal.

Suzanne Blake learned that she would be transferred from the still-unnamed Central Los Angeles High School #9 in a brief morning meeting with the new regional school-district administrator.

The new leader of the year-old, $232-million school is Luis Lopez, a principal for the last five years at Franklin High in Highland Park.

The decision to replace Blake, a former middle school principal, was made by Dale Vigil, the top administrator in that area. Vigil rejoined the Los Angeles Unified School District in late June after more than four years as superintendent in the Bay Area.

“Suzanne did an admirable job of getting the school up and running, but at this point I feel the school needs the leadership of a seasoned high school administrator,” Vigil said.

Blake’s first year had included a disastrous first visit from an accreditation team. L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines persuaded reviewers to return, and, on the second try, the school earned the maximum three-year accreditation for a new campus.

Also during the year, the leadership of the teachers union called for Blake’s dismissal, saying that she ran the school in an authoritarian manner rather than in collaboration with teachers. Three teachers among the staff of 43 have transferred out.

The school, which has a steel tower, a large auditorium and spacious dance studios, became the subject of scrutiny before it even opened. School board members squabbled over who should attend, the district couldn’t find a principal and philanthropist Eli Broad, an early backer, withdrew support.

But Blake, 54, won supporters among the staff and arts community and appeared set to stay at the Grand Avenue campus.

Theater instructor William Goldyn talked recently of Blake’s “incredible” support. Blake “got on her hands and knees” to paint sets, doing whatever was needed to help, he said.

“She’s a great leader,” said Assistant Principal Yvett Landeros. “Things are going spectacularly in terms of a new school. To make a change just doesn’t make sense.”

Blake and Lopez had emerged last year as finalists for principal after a national search resulted in two high-profile, experienced arts school leaders turning down the job.

In early July, Vigil decided to re-interview both Blake and Lopez, then choose which one should head the school.

During the school year, school board President Monica Garcia complained internally about both the accreditation snag and the school’s inability to recruit more students from low-income neighborhoods near the campus: 70% of students are supposed to live in the area; the figure was closer to 60% in the inaugural year.

“I did what every board member would do and raise hell — excuse me — express concern,” Garcia said. “Because this is a very important school. This school was built and designed for the kids of this neighborhood.”

Cortines personally oversaw last year’s hiring of Blake and Executive Director Rex Patton. Amid some tension between the two, Cortines said he recently decided to assign Patton elsewhere. As recently as late June, Cortines indicated that Blake could stay on. But the final decision on assignments in that region belonged to Vigil, he added.

Lopez’s current school, Franklin, has failed to meet federal achievement targets since 1998, well before Lopez arrived. In his first three years, the school averaged modest but steady gains on the state’s Academic Performance Index. Last year, Franklin showed a substantial boost in standardized test scores.

Like Blake, Lopez, 44, is a former professional dancer. He performed with two ballet folklorico companies. One of his sons attends the arts high school.

howard.blume@latimes.com


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