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This is what happened when the incoming Education secretary met former gang members

John King talks to Homeboy Industries

Incoming acting Secretary of Education John King talked to former gang members, ex-convicts and the people who help them recover at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles in August.

(Homeboy Industries)

On a hot day in August, John King arrived in Los Angeles to better understand gangs. 

Then filling the role of deputy Education secretary, King sat down with a group of former gang members and convicts in Chinatown. He met a woman named Mariana Ruiz, whose path to college was far from typical. She was nervous to meet this “wonderful man who looked really clean cut." 

As of Friday, that man is slated to become the nation’s acting secretary of Education when Arne Duncan leaves his job in December.

Back in August, King had been dispatched to Los Angeles by the federal government for a number of reasons, including to talk to Homeboy Industries about My Brother’s Keeper. The program is a White House initiative designed to help level the playing field for young men of color. At Homeboy, a Los Angeles organization founded to help former and prospective gang members get back on their feet, people went around the room and talked about their experiences with the criminal justice and education systems.

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King mostly asked questions and listened. “We have to focus on successful reentry [into society from prisons], like Homeboy, nationwide,” he said.

Over lunch, Ruiz told her story: She started life as a gifted and talented student at a public school in the San Fernando Valley but became troubled in third grade, when her mother died. She got into fights, became affiliated with a gang, became addicted to alcohol and methamphetamine, and fell out of school.

“School was a way to escape from home and get into trouble,” she said in an interview after the event. “I grew up really destructive, got suspended or expelled from every school that I went to.”

Eventually, one fight landed her in jail, and she finally had to face her demons. “Any of the pain I had gone through, the kids that I lost, I had to sit there and face what I’d done,” she said.

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A friend told her that it was a chance to “call out to [her] higher power” and recover. Ruiz was scared, but she listened. She got out of jail and retained custody of her child, and shaped up. She got clean. She got a job. Then she got laid off.

She felt shaky. She found Homeboy, which helps former felons, a status that prevented her from finding other work. Through Homeboy, she got her GED. Someone at the organization signed her up for college. Though she was nervous, she began taking classes. She got all A’s and made the Dean’s List. She now works for Homeboy.

As Ruiz told this to King, she said, he listened. “He was very open-minded to us. He was very compassionate,” she said. “Not a lot of people are open to people like us. We get a lot of negative reactions.”

So Ruiz was pleased to hear of King’s appointment. But meanwhile, across the country, some educators who saw King serve as schools chief in New York state had an entirely different reaction.

As schools chief, King presided over New York’s implementation of the Common Core standards, which coincided with the state’s new teacher evaluations. During the process, parents revolted at town hall meetings, screaming at him and calling him names.

On Friday, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that she was “disappointed” with King’s appointment.

“No one doubts King’s commitment to children, but his tenure as New York’s state education commissioner created so much polarization in the state with parents and educators alike that even Gov. Andrew Cuomo is finally doing a mea culpa over the obsession with testing,” Weingarten said. “We can only hope that King has learned a thing or two since his tenure in New York.”

It is unclear how King’s policies might differ from Duncan’s, and King had little to say on the subject in his brief appearance at a White House press conference on Friday.

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Duncan leaves King an Education Department that is trying to hold together its reform agenda, and to solidify its legacy through legislation after using executive power to further its goals. But King’s experience listening to ex-cons and weathering brutal criticism as New York’s  education commissioner will be important as he navigates an agency that has been tied in political knots since 2008. He might have even learned a few lessons.

Who is John King?

As Duncan said at Friday’s White House press conference, King “was one of those kids that probably shouldn’t be in a room like this, if you sort of look at the stereotype.”

Speaking at the White House on Friday, King expanded on his biography. “I grew up in Brooklyn,” said King, who is African American and Puerto Rican. “I lost my mom when I was 8, my dad when I was 12. My dad was very sick before he passed.”

As a kid, King said, he was passed around from family member to family member. “New York City public school teachers are the reason I’m alive,” he said. They “gave me hope, hope about what is possible.”

After graduating from high school and Harvard, he went on to get a master’s degree in teaching social studies from Columbia University’s Teachers College, a doctorate in school administration from that same school, and a law degree from Yale.

His education career began with his teaching high school social studies in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Boston. He became a principal in Brooklyn, founded Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Massachusetts, and ultimately served as a managing director at Uncommon Schools, an organization that managed a chain of charter schools in three states. He wound up as a senior deputy commissioner, working under New York state schools chief David Steiner. 

When Steiner stepped down in 2011, King, then 36, was appointed to be New York state’s education commissioner. From that post, he oversaw the implementation of the Common Core, a set of learning goals that the Obama administration incentivized through the Race to the Top competition.

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At that time, Merryl Tisch, chair of New York’s Board of Regents, the state school board, said she thought the changes were necessary. “We had something in my opinion that was close to scandalous,” Tisch recalled in an interview on Friday.

State tests showed that 70% or 80% of students were proficient, yet harder national tests told a different story: Only 30% of students were proficient on those exams. And 75% of students graduated from high school requiring remediation. “How can you tell parents that kids are proficient when you have so many indicators that there’s a crisis?”

Tisch first met King when they were studying at Teachers College. She supported his promotion to the state chief job because of his experience.

“My feeling about John was to say, look at your career training, he worked in classrooms in urban settings, he founded a charter school group, and he worked at a level of policymaker,” she said, positions that gave him a “bird’s eye view.”

But the standards were harder for teachers, and many argued that their students were being tested on the new goals before they had had time to prepare, or receive proper teaching tools, such as textbooks. The first round of test results saw a severe decrease in the percentage of students who were reported to be proficient, much like the recent release of Smarter Balanced test scores here in California. And in New York, the results came before those of other states, so there was little information to cushion the shock.

In Tisch’s view, the standards and new teacher evaluations got conflated — she now wishes that she and King had not implemented those at the same time. “People in New York state were not against the standards,” she said. “We were experiencing enormous discomfort without enough understanding of why we were doing this.”

In a series of town halls across the state, he weathered tough and loud criticism. One time, in October 2013, he was booed by angry Poughkeepsie parents at a meeting organized by the PTA. As a result, he canceled future PTA listening sessions, saying that the outcomes were not constructive.

Even after the toughest of those conversations, though, Tisch said, King was eager to hear feedback. Though she said the meetings took a physical toll on him, “he handled the pressure extraordinarily well.” Tisch said King never complained about the meetings. “I never saw him blow up, I never saw him get frustrated,” she said. 

But his straits continued to worsen. In April 2014, the New York State United Teachers voted “no confidence” in King and called for him to resign. King didn’t want to support legislation that paused the tying of test scores to teacher evaluations for two years, but Cuomo, who had been an ally, supported it. 

King left his New York position in December 2014 to work for Duncan.

As it turns out, King had turned down a different high-profile job: According to Dale Rusakoff’s recently published book “The Prize,” about Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg’s gift to Newark Public Schools, he was wined and dined by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Zuckerberg himself as they wooed him to take over the district. But he turned the job down. 

Tisch said it was because he didn’t think he could make a difference there. “John doesn’t mind hard work, but he wants to go to a place where he thinks governance structure is effective,” she said, “and he can have a real voice.”

You can reach Joy Resmovits on Twitter @Joy_Resmovits and by email at Joy.Resmovits@LATimes.com. 


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