The Los Angeles Unified School District introduced itself Tuesday to a new superintendent who, unlike his predecessor, didn’t rise up through its ranks.
Austin Beutner, who has never run a school or a school district, is quick to acknowledge that he has much to learn. He kicked off his first official day of work with a 12-stop, 13-hour cram course, which took him to the San Fernando Valley and Harbor City, to Mar Vista, South L.A. and East L.A.
Along the way, he visited an afterschool program, an automotive training program and a center that coaches young parents.
If there was a takeaway that district officials wanted, it was that L.A. Unified is much more than its problems and is doing an impressive job educating many children in an astonishing variety of ways.
“This is a reminder of why we do the work,” Beutner said after the final stop at Garfield High School, where he watched an orientation for hundreds of incoming ninth graders and their parents. “You could not help but be inspired today.”
Beutner is a philanthropist and former investment banker who also served as first deputy mayor of Los Angeles and as publisher of the L.A. Times. His very presence in the school system hierarchy is a signal that the Board of Education — and influential civic leaders — want to see sweeping changes.
Beutner is expected to confront not just the district’s lagging test scores but to apply his business savvy to its precarious financial situation. He made it clear Tuesday that he understood that the good-news tour was only a partial picture.
“You always start with what you’re proud of and the community should be proud,” he said. “But stay tuned.… I [also] will take a tour and see things that are a challenge. And we’re going to work on those, too.”
His day began at 5 a.m. at a Sun Valley yard housing 300 school buses. There, driver Maria Carrillo, a district parent, walked the new superintendent through her daily 20-minute safety check.
She checked lug nuts, tire treads and more than three dozen lights. She opened the luggage compartments to look for emergency supplies and lifted the hood to examine fan belts and oil levels.
Beutner was impressed: “I just get in the car and make sure my wife didn’t leave a soft drink from the day before.”
As at every stop to come, he had many questions. Training for bus drivers, he learned, includes CPR, in case there is a medical emergency.
Tanya Walters, another driver who looked on and provided some answers, said she was encouraged despite Beutner’s lack of school-system experience.
“Sometimes it’s not what you have behind you but that you have an open mind to learn" said Walters, an officer in the union that represents bus drivers. “He’s willing to walk with the people who do the job on a day-to-day basis.”
On Tuesday, the effort to make an impression went two ways, and Beutner never lost his poise or curiosity.
“It sounds like he’s very interested in what we do, the routines, and wanting to learn more,” said third-grade teacher Danielle Tognozzi, who met the new superintendent when he stopped by her class at Napa Street Elementary in Northridge to meet students and watch them have breakfast in the classroom.
One stop that Beutner asked to have included was the automotive training program at Van Nuys High School. Instructor Joe Agruso said it took him more than a decade to build it into an apprenticeship and enrichment program that enrolls 135 students. Van Nuys, Agruso said, is one of only eight campuses in L.A. Unified with an automotive program, though there used to be many more.
Julia Melero, a 17-year-old junior, already has a job at a local dealership. On a specially outfitted computer, she showed Beutner how a hybrid engine works.
As Beutner was leaving, Agruso made a pitch for expanding such career technical programs — which used to be known as vocational classes — in the school system. Beutner said it’s something he wants to do.
Other stops included Grand View Elementary in Mar Vista, where students learn in Spanish and English and become fully bilingual.
At an early childhood center in Reseda, Beutner toured an infant program with a dual purpose: to provide needed parenting guidance and to give young parents enough time off from their babies to complete high school.
In South L.A. Beutner watched as sixth graders in uniform at the all-male Boys Academic Leadership Academy chanted, as they do daily, “I am the master of my fate.”
At the Maywood Center for Enriched Studies, which serves grades six through 12, Beutner learned that each student gets a Chromebook to take home — and that a corporate donor has provided all the high schoolers with hot spots to make sure they have access to the internet at home. He also learned that this campus has a waiting list.
While there, he gamely grabbed a cafeteria meal and consumed half a barbecue pork sandwich. He also chatted about the NBA playoffs with a table of students, and called over the principal to point out two ninth graders who said they wanted to start a book club.
At Narbonne High in Harbor City, he took off his jacket and took a few swings of batting practice. He didn’t embarrass himself.
“At least I got one out of the infield,” he said afterward, a little excited and a little relieved.
Beutner has so far left his critics and supporters guessing as to his broader agenda for the district.
One theme emerged: Beutner wants to add more offerings for students, despite the financial challenges. Throughout the day, he saw an array of programs meant to connect with specific types of students. The point, he said, is to keep students engaged and build their confidence.
“For me, it was music,” he said. “I could perform in front of people long before I could speak in front of them.”