LAUSD’s John Deasy stresses administrator responsibility, promises aid
Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy presented a grand, difficult bargain Wednesday in his first formal address to administrators of the nation’s second-largest school system.
While the delivery was cajoling, Deasy made it plain he would push principals and other managers out of comfort zones, demanding that they take responsibility as never before for hiring teachers and evaluating their performances. He will also direct principals to take greater responsibility for whether individual students are on track for graduation and college.
He, in turn, pledged to get out of the way, while also providing key assistance, including helping to break down an “ossified” bureaucracy in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
“I’m committed to finding ways to provide the support necessary to free you from the restraints that impede you from this work,” Deasy said.
The result should and must be sharply improving academic achievement, he said, asserting that one sentence would best define the school system: “We improve instruction.”
The back-to-school speech to administrators has become a much-watched annual ritual, a temperature check on the district’s top manager, his program and how the rank-and-file are receiving it.
Deasy, 50, assumed the top spot in mid-April, with the retirement of Ramon C. Cortines. Like his predecessors, Deasy took pleasure in reciting the achievements of the district as a whole and particular schools at some length. His contract contains specific improvement targets, including higher test scores and better graduation rates.
Some in the audience have spoken of reasons to be wary of Deasy, including his endorsement of replacing the administrators and most teachers at persistently low-performing schools, which L.A. Unified is mandating with increasing frequency.
Administrators also have expressed worries about Deasy’s strong ties to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — a staunch critic of some district labor groups — and to charter-school supporters as well as to philanthropists and donors critical of public school performance.
Deasy tried to position himself firmly Wednesday with the principals, middle managers and senior administrators packed into the orchestra and balcony of the historic Hollywood High School auditorium.
“The relentless disbelief in the public school system in this country must end,” he said, while also decrying funding levels for schools in California.
Such reassuring rhetoric needs to be matched with a full understanding of what principals are being asked to do, said Judith Perez, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles. New evaluation systems now being tested with some principals and teachers, for example, may be so time-consuming that they can’t be expanded districtwide, especially with principals covering other duties in place of laid-off support staff, she said.
Deasy, she said, needs to be open to other perspectives without suggesting that those who disagree with him are trying to slow down the pace of school improvement.
On Wednesday, many administrators also were absorbing word of the unannounced, forced departure of Judy Elliott, L.A. Unified’s chief academic officer.
Elliott was instrumental in adopting a new reading program and pushing for rapid and more tailored intervention for struggling students. She also spearheaded a new homework policy that Deasy shelved.
“What Judy brought to us was a sense of empowerment that we could really make a difference with kids, really be innovators and not get hung up on technicalities and the status quo,” said Normandie Elementary School Principal Gustavo Ortiz.
Deasy declined to comment. Elliott’s role has shifted to a recent hire, Deputy Supt. Jaime Aquino.
Deasy’s speech scored points with those assembled for eloquence and intelligence, but he didn’t capture the room as Cortines did last year, who, at 78, delivered an impassioned windup to a long career.
When Deasy finished, the administrators rose to applaud, but a speaker quickly cut them short, directing groups of principals to various meeting rooms. The message was clear: It was time to get to work.
Dorsey High School Principal Reginald Sample said he heard more than enough inspiration in Deasy’s challenge.
“There used to be a time when people said to students, ‘I get paid whether you learn or not.’ Today, your job is directly tied to student achievement. There should be pressure on everyone.”
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