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Dr. Michelle King, the first African American woman to lead L.A. Unified, dies at 57

Dr. Michelle King, the first African American woman to lead L.A. Unified, dies at 57
Michelle King, shown at a board meeting, was named superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District in January 2016. (Los Angeles Times)

Throughout a long career as a local educator, Michelle King exceeded expectations at every step but never had a chance to leave a defining mark at the peak of her career — as Los Angeles schools superintendent — because of illness that would later claim her life.

King, the first African American woman to lead the L.A. Unified School District, has died, the district announced Saturday.

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She was 57 and had been battling cancer.

The school board selected King to lead the nation’s second-largest school system in January 2016. Her last day at work was Sept. 15, 2017, when she began a medical leave, but she’d been ailing before that.

King had grown up attending Los Angeles schools and began her professional career as a teacher’s aide, then a teacher, gradually rising through the ranks. Her style was not to make waves. Instead she impressed people with her competence, humanity, dedication and loyalty — over and over again.

“I promoted her three times,” said former L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, who served three stints as district leader. During the last, King was his chief deputy. “She was my partner. I did not make decisions without consulting her.”

And when Cortines retired, the board selected King to replace him.

She brought to the job strong internal support but a certain discomfort in the spotlight, even before her ailment, that contrasted with her predecessors.

King's major accomplishment was pushing the graduation rate to record levels by allowing students to quickly make up credits for failed classes. Her major initiative had been to expand the number of schools with special programs to offset declining enrollment caused by the growth of privately operated charter schools.

A year after taking office, the political ground shifted under her when the board majority changed. A new majority elected with support from charter school backers took control, and there was wide speculation its members would want to choose their own district leader. At the same time, board members and others were criticizing King for not moving faster on a strategic plan.

But she won high marks from competing interest groups for taking their concerns seriously and for trying to bring warring factions together on behalf of students.

“Dr. King was a solid career educator and administrator who sadly didn’t have enough time in her brief tenure to change the culture of LAUSD or fix the longstanding systemic issues that plague the district to this day,” said Paul Robak, a parent activist who worked with King.

King was born on March 9, 1961, to professional parents who were part of a proud, aspiring black middle class in a city where many minority families were not doing well. Her father had become a lawyer during her childhood. Her mother worked for the county. Together they provided their daughter with a sheltered life.

"It was assumed and expected you would go to college," King told The Times in an interview. "My father looked at my report cards. We were taught to respect our teachers and that we would get good grades."

She attended L.A. Unified schools, including Palisades High, where she was a top student and a cheerleader and one of the few blacks at a school whose student body was mainly wealthy and white.

After attending UCLA, her first teaching assignment was in the San Fernando Valley, a world apart from the worst poverty of the L.A. Basin.

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King was not oblivious to social ills, but her understanding deepened, she said, as she watched the video of police officers beating Rodney King, followed by the trial that acquitted them. She also recalled the riots of 1992 when, as a young teacher, she stood in her hillside home in South Los Angeles' largely African American, largely upscale View Park neighborhood, watching large swaths of Los Angeles burn. The experience deepened a longstanding instinct to help foundering students push ahead.

She moved through teaching jobs at Porter Junior High and Wright Middle School while shepherding her own three daughters through school. Sometimes that meant making choices. The first time King was offered the principal's job at Hamilton High, she turned it down.

Her marriage by then was in trouble, and, even after the divorce, King was determined not to miss back-to-school nights or lose the family's tradition of long Sunday dinners, at which the girls could talk out the issues of their lives.

When she finally took the Hamilton job in 2002, after being promoted from vice principal, the entire faculty greeted her with a standing ovation.

"I've never seen it before or since," said retired teacher Shelley Rose.

King didn’t disappoint, pulling together a campus torn by discord.

"Michelle united the faculty, boosted morale, and righted the ship almost immediately," says Barry Smolin, an English teacher. "A lot of it had to do with her calm demeanor, her willingness to hear all sides of an issue and make informed decisions based on sometimes conflicting perspectives — and her genuine concern for students and teachers."

After she took charge, Hamilton's test scores surged well past annual improvement targets.

After leaving Hamilton, King’s earned strong marks as she rose quietly and rapidly through middle management. She said later that she learned from everyone she served under.

As deputy superintendent under Supt. John Deasy in 2014, she firmly led emergency operations after a fatal crash killed five students hundreds of miles to the north near Orland.

Her selection as superintendent was wildly popular among the district’s rank and file.

“She led us as a family and truly embraced the idea that we had to do everything we did, no matter what our role was, as if the children of our district were our own children,” said former school board member Steve Zimmer. “She carried a powerful authenticity.”

King is survived by her daughters, her parents and a brother.

Among the many tributes was one from L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who said King’s “life and career encapsulated what it means to be an Angeleno: excellence, kindness, integrity, service above self.”

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