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Is John Deasy LA Unified's 'last, best hope'?

Deasy walks campus

Tami Abdollah/KPCC

Superintendent John Deasy walks through an economics classroom at Los Angeles High School during a surprise visit.

Deasy tours school

Tami Abdollah/KPCC

Superintendent John Deasy takes a phone call in the Dorsey High School courtyard while making a surprise visit to campus. The school faces possible reconstitution if it does not come up with a public school choice plan that Deasy approves.

Deasy walks campus

Tami Abdollah/KPCC

Superintendent John Deasy talks with a student about their work while on a surprise visit at Stevenson Middle School.

Deasy walks campus

Tami Abdollah/KPCC

Superintendent John Deasy sits with students at Los Angeles High School during a surprise visit and talks with them about a chemical reaction between pennies and salt water.


John Deasy runs a school district of more than 664,000 students with a budget of nearly $7 billion that is currently $390 million short. But, at the moment, he’s worried about toilet paper.

“Did you get the delivery of toilet paper yesterday?” he asks Principal Reginald Sample of Dorsey High on one of his recent visits. (They did.)

No detail seems too small for L.A. Unified's Superintendent Deasy, who spends a few days each week making staccato surprise visits to the district’s more than 760 schools. The visits leave administrators rushing to catch up and some teachers squirming uneasily as he quizzes students on what they’re learning while class is in session.

When the Boston native completed his first year as the official head of L.A. Unified in April, multiple publications wrote retrospectives on his time at the helm. But Deasy, 51, has emphasized looking forward, and he says there’s no time to waste:

“I’m not going to be interested in looking at third-graders and saying ‘Sorry, this is the year you don’t learn to read,’ or to juniors and saying ‘You don’t get to graduate.’ So the pace needs to be quick, and we make no apologies for that.”

***

It’s 8:19 a.m. on a recent Wednesday morning and Deasy is riding through Downtown L.A. in a silver Crown Victoria with a driver who is taking him to four schools in the next three hours and 11 minutes. Seven minutes have gone by and Deasy has made four phone calls.

Deasy’s long working days are now somewhat of district lore: He wakes up at 3 a.m. for a run and gets into the office by 4 or 4:30 a.m., usually finishing up his day by 9 or 10 p.m. About three times a week he goes out to visit schools, making a few stops each day.

The first stop today is Los Angeles High School, which earlier this year had its principal die and on this day has an interim principal in place. The school was also recently visited for the Western Association of Schools & Colleges accreditation, and staff is working on a couple changes to the provisionally accepted public school choice plan. He talks to interim principal Linda Kay about the differences between two bell schedules and what would work best.

“Let me suggest you do it this way,” Deasy says. “What honestly feels like it could work best for L.A. High? What makes the most sense?”

Deasy often asks administrators, “What do you need from me?” As the former chemistry and biology teacher brusquely walks through campus, he picks up a pair of gym shorts left on the floor of a hallway and pops them into a locker.

The school’s public school choice plan was accepted a few weeks later and the school will now begin implementing it. L.A. High also has a new permanent principal in place, and Kay will stay on as a mentor through the end of the school year to ensure a smooth transition.

“The ability to talk to him on what would be positive, how he could help L.A. High School, I felt, was very important,” said Kay in a later interview.

***

As the district has wrestled with cuts because of increasing reductions in state funding, Deasy is working to restructure L.A. Unified so that it’s more agile at the classroom level.

“It’s why we have shrunk the bureaucracy and have driven a service-center culture, and that is painful to do in a system where bureaucracies are designed to perpetuate themselves,” said Deasy at an interview last month on the 24th floor of the district’s Downtown headquarters. “That is really kind of the center and heart of what we’re attempting to do.”

Instead of eight local districts, there will be four, plus one for the most fragile and struggling schools and the most innovative ones, he said.

The district’s hiring for these administrative positions involved a “dramatically different” process from what it’s been in the past, Deasy said. Administrators were asked to analyze instruction, to examine data, and they are asked questions about video clips of teachers in the classroom, Deasy said.

“It’s never good to look backwards, but if we had the funds we had had eight years ago with this restructuring that would have been a really exciting time,” Deasy said. “So, instead, it’s a very challenging time. Not because of how we’re doing it, but because of what we have to spend to get it done.”

On the 24th floor, the remnants of cutting are visible: Rows of cubicles sit empty.

“We have removed 56 percent of all the people so we could fund schools,” Deasy said. “Less than half the central administration is left in two years.”

At the core of Deasy’s efforts is ensuring each student is prepared to enter college when they graduate. He has worked to up the requirements for graduation. But he is criticized sometimes for working too fast or being too sweeping.

“You need to ask the student [if it’s too fast],” Deasy said. “You get one chance to read at grade level, you get one chance to complete algebra…you get one chance to graduate…If you were to go to the parents in many of the organizations that I meet with, they’re saying that we’re moving way too slow.”

“There’s so much more I’d like to do,” Deasy said. “I know that’s probably impossible to believe.”

*** 

In a chemistry class at L.A. High, students are in small groups experimenting with pennies and salt water.

“What’s on the surface of the penny?” Deasy asks leaning down next to the students. “Acid,” a student says.

“What did you learn?”

“How to clean pennies.”

A few doors down the hallway in an honors English class, students discuss “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison. “What did you learn?” Deasy asks two boys talking over the lesson. “What is the symbolism of the trees?”

Afterward, Deasy recaps the visit: “It’s better, but there’s an unbelievably long way to go,” he says. “These are just snapshots.”

He runs down the list of classes he popped into in his 45 minutes on campus. The chemistry experiment was “just a task and not complex,” without enough “context” on how the copper penny and sodium chloride fit together. The worksheet required the students to observe a reaction “with very directed responses,” Deasy says. “So much could have been done with that. Why the reaction took place? What are the implications?”

The honors English class impressed him with students working as “elbow partners.” Deasy was able to have “conversation in significant depth on motif and symbolism” and students were able to draw out the symbolism between the trees and what they represent, and the lynching, or taking of life. “That was very rich.” 

***

At Dorsey High, the school’s principal Reginald Sample has been working with staff to come up with a new plan to improve its academics. Otherwise, Deasy may reconstitute the school — replace its entire staff  — though people may reapply for their jobs.

According to the district’s most recent data from 2010-11, 80 percent of the school’s students were not proficient in English language arts, and 95 percent were not proficient in math. The school's more than 1,500 students are about 55 percent black and 44 percent Latino, with about 71 percent identified as economically disadvantaged.

After a 15-minute talk with Sample, Deasy is ready to check out classes. He walks over to one class taught by the school’s union representative and history teacher Noah Lippe-Klein. Deasy pays a private visit to the teacher who he’s been told has been working to rally teachers to avoid reconstitution.

“I’m very, very concerned that this faculty thinks everything is going to be OK,” Deasy said. “I told him I think you’re leading people off a cliff.”

Lippe-Klein has taught at Dorsey since he started with L.A. Unified 13 years ago and lives just a couple blocks away. He said he has been working countless hours with other teachers to try and come up with a good public school choice plan and does not believe reconstitution is a good alternative.

“A lot of us are deeply worried about the kind of impact that would have on the school,” Lippe-Klein said. “Dorsey’s proficiency rates are not where we want them to be, but there’s a lot of teaching going on campus that is really strong. Lots of teachers are super committed to the community or are alumni that have lived in the community for a really long time and work their butts off to meet the needs of the kids.”

Dorsey has until October to come up with a plan or face reconstitution.

“He’s coming in, wanting to see transformation,” Sample said later in an interview. “And I can’t be mad about that.”

In a 10th grade geometry class, Deasy leans down next to a student working on a problem. He asks him what he’s learning. Then tells him to explain it: “Teach me.”

When the student appears confused, Deasy prods him.

“What’s the biggest clue to figure out what that angle is?” he asks. “Do all obtuse angles when cut by two parallel lines have the same angle?”

Because of its 595 API score, Sample says he sees many neighborhood students stand out on the school steps waiting to take a bus elsewhere each morning. And yet, the school also features some standout teachers, and struggles to hold on to them.

David Wu is in the middle of teaching an honors chemistry class when Deasy enters the room. “He’s one of the most amazing teachers I’ve met in my entire life,” Deasy whispers. He turns to the teacher, who has been accepted to USC Business School, and tells him to “please delay for a year…think about it.” Wu is speechless.

Afterward, Deasy stops to talk to Albert Ha who is teaching biology class to ask him to rethink attending Harvard Medical School.

“I have to stop by when one of our best is going to go somewhere else,” Deasy says. “I get nervous.”

Ha also doesn’t know what to say, but smiles in embarrassment in front of his class.

But Deasy says that there’s not much else he can do: “I show up…write a note to the teachers,” Deasy says. “I’m worried about the exodus of teachers going to business or medical school.”

***

The third stop of the day is at Stevenson Middle School, a partnership school that has struggled in the past, Deasy says. While he tours the classrooms, he asks the principal to evaluate some of the classes:

“Would you put your kids in these classes?”

“To be honest, no,” Principal Leo Gonzalez says.

“That’s the level you need to be…” Deasy says.

Throughout the campus are murals of college letters, mascots and symbols painted on the walls.

“There’s more of an academic feel to the school,” Deasy says as he walks out. “There’s definitely a big difference, but there’s always room to grow. The school is more under control and teachers are able to focus more on instruction.”

***

The final stop is Belvedere Middle School, and Deasy discovers Principal Ignacio Garcia is out at a local district meeting.

The visit doesn’t start well. A student is caught outside of class after the bell sounds and Deasy has the student lead him to class. The door is locked and when it’s opened, the teacher is clearly upset with the class, and is having students sit quietly for two minutes.

Down the hall another teacher is reading out loud from John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” A student sits with his head on the table, others don’t appear to be focused on the lesson. Deasy tells one student to take his hat off as he walks by him in the last row, and another to put his drawing book away.

“I’m so distressed,” Deasy says as he walks out of the classroom.

In the next class, Carlos Tejada is talking to students about the Renaissance and about their exam the next day. He tells them that they can either write the definition of a word or draw a picture if they can’t define it. The exam will also include questions on the bubonic plague, and he asks the students to define it and explain how it’s transferred. They have a hard time with that.

Deasy stands to the side in the dark room starting to grow visibly upset as the lesson continues. After several minutes, he quickly walks out of the classroom, his face flushed red.

“If [L.A. Times columnist] Sandy Banks puts an article in the paper, it’s because of crap like this,” Deasy says in the hallway. “It is so disrespectful to have no expectations of children. It’s every classroom I’ve seen.”

Deasy walks over to the main office: “Could the principal give me a ring when he comes in?”

Tejada did not respond to requests for comment. Principal Garcia got the message when he returned from his meeting.

“I called [Deasy] back, but he must have been very busy, because he didn’t call me back,” said Garcia in a later interview. “He did call, however, District 5 administrators, who in turn called me with information.”

Garcia said none of the teachers approached him to tell him Deasy visited their classroom, and he wasn’t told which teachers were visited. He learned second hand.

“It’s a very short period of time in which to make an assessment,” Garcia said. “Now of course, Dr. Deasy is a special person because he is very experienced in education, he’s quite an authority and a very bright man, but it does take more than a really short period of time to really assess a setting. I don’t have the details of what transpired. I wasn’t given the names of people that were observed.”

***

When Deasy is walking through a school he is constantly chatting with everyone he sees. Saying hello to students and staff alike. He asks nearly every high school student he talks to where they’re going to college.

But off campus, Deasy has sometimes been criticized for not communicating more openly and broadly. He said he’s always working to get better at communication.

“Communication isn’t bringing a Twitter expert to school,” said Scott Folsom, a longtime parent advocate who watches the district closely. “Communication is drilling in and figuring out how you actually speak to parents and the predominant parent in LAUSD is a first generation Latino-Latina immigrant, struggling really hard.”

Deasy said he needs to connect more with parents and community members in his second year.

“I would say that’s where I personally fell short of my own personal goals [last year] and I don’t intend to fall short about that again,” Deasy said.

School board president Monica Garcia said the district as a whole struggles to communicate with its multifold “stakeholders.”

“Every member of the LAUSD, especially the superintendent, we always have to work on better communicating out what we’re trying to do,” Garcia said.

But she also said Deasy can’t always take the time to get everyone on board.

“John Deasy has a job where cannot wait for consensus, in order to get to serving kids,” Garcia said. “He is always challenged with executing today and building for tomorrow…Things are moving all the time. The scope and scale of the job is incredible.”

Others have brought up teacher morale as a major issue for Deasy to address this next year. The budget, after four years of continuing cuts, remains a heavy challenge for L.A. Unified, but it has also negatively impacted employees who received more than 11,700 preliminary pink slip notices in March, and have had to do a lot more with less: fewer colleagues, less funding, and less support.

“People are very tired,” Deasy said. “I think people are exhausted. I think peoples’ morale is really challenged. Yeah, we take solace in the indicators of what’s happening around attendance and achievement and those are good things, but that can’t be sustained with the fraction of the workforce we have working here.”

School board member Steve Zimmer said sometimes Deasy’s urgency to improve the district can prevent him from “stopping or pausing.” 

“He brings an incredible passion to our work. It is charged with the most authentic and heartfelt social justice and civil justice urgency,” Zimmer said. But “he needs to be more conscientious of the morale of the organization and the people within that organization, that actually are going to deliver on the civil rights and social justice. Because the inconvenient truth of being superintendent is that he doesn’t get to teach every class. He gets to lead a structure that has to get the energy and urgency down to that classroom level, and to do that, you have to make sure that people are taken care of, and that people feel part of the mission.”

Zimmer said such a change in Deasy's next year at the helm is key because the stakes are so high: “John Deasy represents the last, best hope for change in this public school district.”

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).

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