High school seniors in the Los Angeles Unified School District graduating in 2015 have attended school under five different superintendents since they began kindergarten in 2001. That statistic punctuates the departure of Superintendent John Deasy, who resigned last month following a three-and-a-half-year term that included both peak performances and steep pitfalls in the district.
As the door closes on Deasy’s high-profile leadership as LAUSD superintendent, Intersections explored how Deasy’s work influenced the experience of students in South L.A.—home to some of the district’s lowest performing schools.
LAUSD steps forward
Prior to his appointment as LAUSD superintendent, Deasy served as deputy director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He had also served as superintendent in Santa Monica-Malibu Unified and Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland.
When he took the helm at LAUSD in 2011, many Angelenos viewed Deasy as a reformer and adamant student advocate.
Consider one example of this bravado: In a groundbreaking decision announced at South L.A.’s Manual Arts High School in August, LAUSD ordered police to stop giving students citations for fighting, petty theft and other minor offenses. Students instead would be given counseling and directed to other programs.
In an interview with NPR after his Oct. 16 departure, Deasy said that under his leadership the LAUSD reduced suspensions from about 48,000 a year to just less than 8,000. Statistics released shortly before his exit also suggest that graduation rates increased during his tenure from just above 50 percent at the outset of his term to an estimated 77.
But Deasy’s boundary-pushing stances created ripples for opponents. He became unpopular with teachers unions, in particular, after he testified against their interests in Vergara v. California, a statewide suit that reformed the process of teacher tenure and made it easier to lay-off senior staff rather than newly hired teachers. The unions are appealing the decision.
Jefferson High School Principal Donald Foote said Deasy’s push to reform teacher tenure laws could have a profound and positive impact on South L.A. students by removing ineffective teachers from their classrooms.
Having good teachers is especially critical in South L.A., Foote said, because they can offer enrichment that parents may not be able to offer.
“If you go to some place like South Pasadena or San Marino those kids are affluent,” Foote said. “That means they went to museums, their parents read to them. On the other hand, South L.A. — which is a very different area where parents are working two or three jobs with very low wages just to get by — those things may not be an option.”
See also: Deasy to stay through 2016
Parent groups said that for those who were able to take an active role in their children’s education, Deasy was willing to listen. In a statement on its website following Deasy’s resignation, the advocacy group Parent Revolution praised Deasy’s respect for “trigger laws” which allow parents to transform the administration of poorly performing schools by converting them into charter schools.
“Rather than threaten parents and push them aside, or throw out their petitions and force them to sue, Superintendent Deasy welcomed over 100 parents from 24th Street Elementary into LAUSD headquarters and told them that they were right to demand more for their kids; that there was no excuse for the continued failure at their school, and that he would work with them to fix it,” the Parent Revolution blog post stated.
In this project, Deasy and LAUSD formed a partnership with a local charter school, added pre-school for all students and created what Parent Revolution called a district/charter pre-k through 8th grade feeder pattern at the 24th Street campus in South L.A.
The California Charter Schools Association praised Deasy’s “willingness to work with all public school students, including those attending charter public schools, in the midst of a challenging and ever-changing education landscape,” it said in a statement posted on its site after Deasy’s resignation.
Deasy’s drags on the system
While Deasy supporters and parent groups praised his efforts on behalf of students, many teachers and administrators felt that Deasy’s corporate past made him too beholden to business interests.
In her speech to the West Coast Labor Management Institute Oct. 22, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said the “us-versus-them” mentality touted by superintendents often makes it appear as though teachers are working against students.
“John, who relied so strongly on funding from the philanthropic community, was serving two masters,” she said. “Ultimately, his undoing was something we see in school districts across the country: a refusal to deeply work with those closest to the classroom.”
For her part, United Teachers Los Angeles South Area Chair Ingrid Villeda said the superintendent did a poor job of communicating with teachers and that he did not understand many of the problems teachers faced in classrooms.
“No one at Beaudry has ever stepped into the classroom and taught: not the superintendent, not the local superintendent, not the director,” Villeda said, referring to the LAUSD offices on Beaudry Avenue in Downtown L.A. “For anyone outside of the classroom to take credit for graduation rates going up seems a bit ridiculous to me,” she added.
Few deny that South L.A. schools have seen their share of problems under Deasy, whether or not he is to blame. Recently, a California Superior Court judge ordered the state to fix a paralyzing snafu at Jefferson High after LAUSD’s new scheduling software assigned students to the wrong classes, forcing them to lose instructional time and miss classes they required to graduate. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of students by the American Civil Liberties Union.
In May, the ACLU filed a separate class action on behalf of students at South L.A.’s Fremont High School for similar scheduling problems that occurred in 2012.
Technological failures plagued Deasy’s tenure at LAUSD. His goal of getting an iPad into every student’s hands caused an uproar after emails between district officials and technology companies called into question the fairness of the bidding process.
But many South L.A. schools are facing technology problems more dire than a lack of iPads. Foote said when he began serving as principal at Jefferson in August he was surprised at how few computers the school had.
“I don’t know why our technology is so archaic,” Foote said. “At the school I was at before, we used [the] funds that were available to purchase technology. And that didn’t happen here.”
Villeda, who teaches at 93rd Street Elementary in South L.A., said the school’s air conditioning system is 50 to 60 years old, and the campus is in “shambles” in other ways, too. She said the funds for technological upgrades at 93rd Street Elementary were stopped in favor of the superintendent’s “pet projects.”
Still, Deasy and the school board have tried to disperse some funds to underperforming South L.A. schools, pledging support of $837 million, partially to establish a “student need index.” The index would be combined with the local funding formula to better allocate money to educate low-income students, English learners and students in foster care.
Villeda said poor implementation of the local control funding formula, at least up to now, has deprived schools of necessary resources. Prior to Deasy’s tenure, Villeda said parent councils helped oversee the dispersal of those funds but now the job is left to school officials and principals.
“There are schools in L.A. and in South L.A. specifically where the student population has several pockets of high need,” Villeda said. “Those schools should be seeing double, triple the amount of funding they used to see because they service really, really high need populations. But…we’re not implementing the formula quite right.”
She called Deasy’s application of the funding formula “nebulous.”
“Schools don’t understand it and stakeholders like parents don’t understand it,” she said. “I feel that those schools are still not serviced.”
Villeda said she thinks Deasy’s largest failing as superintendent was his handling of the allegations of sexual abuse at South L.A.’s Miramonte Elementary.
“That’s one of the examples of where something could have been done differently, and it just wasn’t,” Villeda said. “Many of the teachers that were innocent [were treated as] guilty by association because they happened to work at the same school.”
Villeda said Deasy’s resignation creates new hope for teachers to build relationships with an employer that is more willing to listen to teachers.
Deasy’s permanent legacy in South L.A. remains in flux pending results of the lawsuit involving the teachers union and the second lawsuit about scheduling failures.
However, several of his contemporaries believe he will be remembered as a trailblazer. In a statement after Deasy’s departure, school board member Monica Garcia praised Deasy’s work, including the increase in graduation rates.
“Dr. Deasy gave us the absolute best of his leadership,” Garcia said in the statement. “Every day, he fought for the rights of our students and he challenged our district to imagine itself stronger and more effective than before.”