The last time L.A. schools had a female superintendent was 1929
To find the last woman who ran Los Angeles schools before newly appointed Supt. Michelle King takes over, you would need to dig far back into the 20th century. The last female superintendent was Susan M. Dorsey, and she held the post from 1920 until the beginning of 1929.
Dorsey worked in the district for more than 30 years — so, like King, Dorsey was an insider.
Born in New York, Dorsey grew up on the East Coast and attended Vassar College before becoming a classics instructor, according to archived L.A. Times stories. Marriage brought her to Los Angeles. She taught Latin at Los Angeles High School beginning in 1896, became a vice principal and principal, rose to assistant superintendent and ultimately superintendent.
When she was appointed to the superintendent’s job in 1920, she was the only woman to be superintendent in a U.S. metropolitan school district, according to The Times.
Unlike King, Dorsey’s appointment wasn’t unanimous — the board approved her hiring by a 5-2 vote, and chose her in part for her local ties, according to Times coverage of the decision. Her appointment “came as a complete surprise to everyone, including Mrs. Dorsey,” according to The Times, because “it was generally reported that she had declined the position.” A story about her appointment reported:
“She has been instrumental in instituting a number of reforms in the school system. She is regarded as progressive and is well acquainted with the local school needs.”
She earned $8,000 a year at first, the equivalent of $94,934.40 in 2015 dollars, and by the end of her tenure the salary had increased to $12,000. King’s superintendent salary hasn’t been finalized yet, but her current district salary is $303,505.
Dorsey’s district was very different from the one over which King will preside. At that time, Los Angeles had two districts: Dorsey’s was for elementary and junior high school students, and there was another for high schools.
Here’s a description from an L.A. Times story from December 1928 about her resignation:
“When Mrs. Dorsey assumed the duties of superintendent of the Los Angeles City School District in 1920 there were 141,744 students enrolled in 233 schools, to which 3,537 teachers were assigned, as against the seventy-five teachers employed when she began her teaching career in 1896.”
Now, all of the Los Angeles Unified School District has just under 650,000 K-12 students and about 26,000 teachers.
Dorsey oversaw much of the district’s physical growth at the time, implementing a building program that cost upwards of $700,000.
The Times story on her retirement notes: “The startling growth of the city and the amazingly rapid development of easy communication and quick transportation greatly complicated the duty of educators.”
One of the greatest challenges Dorsey faced was the city’s expansion. (King, by contrast, is facing a declining student population.) It is in part thanks to Dorsey that L.A. schools are as big as they are, as a Times story from November 1927, discussing her reappointment, read:
“Throughout the tremendous building program of the past seven years Mrs. Dorsey has always urged upon the Board of Education the importance of spacious grounds. It is through her foresight and vision that school sites range from five to thirty acres, as she always has insisted that Los Angeles must look to future expansion and that the children of its citizens must build strong bodies on its school playgrounds.”
She also expanded adult education, and was at the forefront of bringing vocational education and technology into schools. Instead of iPads, though, her tech advancement was to introduce “radio instruction and construction” and “automobile mechanics and shopwork.” She even implemented some aviation classes.
She retired the day before her 72nd birthday, and this is how The Times, in a front page story on Dec. 7, 1928, described the board meeting at which her resignation letter was read:
“The white hands of the superintendent moved nervously and a deep flush overspread her face. Then the tears came and the head with its crown of snowy hair dropped. Mrs. Dorsey was witnessing the passing from her hands of a work to which she had given her best efforts, for thirty-two years.”
Reach Sonali Kohli on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.
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