03/31/2012 11:41:14 PM PDT :: Los Angeles Unified's superintendent hustled through the hallways of San Fernando High School, ducking into classrooms, spot-checking teachers' assignments and greeting every student who crossed his path.
"Hi, I'm John Deasy, howaya?" he asked, his rapid-fire patter shaped by the accent of his native Boston.
"What are you going to do after you graduate?"
That seemingly innocuous question is the heart of Deasy's administration: the right of LAUSD's 664,000 students to graduate from high school with the skills to succeed in college or on the job.
It's what drives his efforts to get rid of underperforming teachers, boost test scores and involve parents in their kids' education.
It's what draws Deasy to his downtown office well before dawn, working to fulfill his promise to L.A.'s youth despite a $390 million budget shortfall.
And it's the goal that Deasy and his advisers have worked toward since his promotion to superintendent last April 15, serving a district where nearly one-third of the students are English-learners and three-quarters live in poverty.
"So many youth rights have not been fully realized," Deasy said during a recent interview in his 24th floor office, where portraits of President Obama, Cesar Chavez, Anwar Sadat and Martin Luther King Jr. grace the walls.
"We said, There is a platform of deliverables that we're going to give to kids and it is going to be about their rights - most of them don't even have a voice. And we're going to brook nothing that stands in their way."
- 'Landmark' union contract: Deasy and UTLA reach a deal giving teachers more autonomy at local campuses and the exclusive right to bid to operate new and underperforming schools.
- Human capital: More than 850 teachers are dismissed for misconduct or incompetence as Deasy tightens performance standards.
- Student achievement: Monthly updates of Deasy's performance meter show improvements in high school graduation and English and math proficiency.
- Healthier meals: More low-fat and vegetarian options are offered at school cafeterias, to mixed results.
- Sex-abuse scandal: Deasy orders a top-down review of personnel files after teachers at Miramonte and Telfair elementary schools are charged with molesting children.
Deasy's biggest fear
Deasy grew up in a devoutly Catholic family in Boston, his parents both teachers, both incredible liberals, both staunch union supporters, both very tough.
"My father was really clear," Deasy recalled. "He says, `Do not get into
LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy is coming up on his one year anniversary as the top dog in the schools. Los Angeles, CA 3/16/2012(John McCoy/Staff Photographer) (John McCoy)
trouble or you'll have me and then whatever other problem you think you have. And go to college. And do good for others.' There were, like, three simple rules ...
"And the other part of it was, `We don't care what you have - money, whatever - you give. And so, from an early age, you volunteer in soup kitchens, you work in the community."
Deasy still operates from that perspective as he sets out to improve the opportunities for the next generation of Angelenos.
"My biggest fear is that we will not do right by kids, that we will not get things better fast enough for kids," said Deasy, 51. "I worry about that all the time."
Without even a job interview, Deasy was promoted to the $330,000-a-year superintendent's job after serving 10 months as second-in-command to LAUSD veteran Ramon Cortines. He'd been recruited in 2010 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation after a nationwide search determined he was the only candidate considered capable of fixing LAUSD's problems.
"L.A. needed not only a reformer but a transformational leader to set the highest standards for our kids," said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who helped broker the Deasy deal. "John was a proven reformer, who believed in data and measurable results and in holding people accountable.
"I appreciate the urgency that he's bringing to improving the district," Villaraigosa added. "I couldn't be more hopeful."
Known for his unflagging energy, Deasy has managed to visit each of the district's 1,000-plus campuses, devoting three days a week to fast-paced tours that have principals and others scrambling to keep up. Tuesdays are usually spent at school board meetings, Thursdays in meetings with his "team."
Most of his time is spent pursuing his "three big bets," what he's dubbed his strategy for boosting student achievement. Essentially, he wants to put the best teachers in the classroom, make the district more efficient and allow parents to choose the school - traditional, pilot or charter - where their child can succeed.
"We will work side by side to get every employee better at their work," he said. "Right now, there are stunning glimpses of amazing performance, there are amazing educational activities taking place. But not everywhere."
LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy visits with student David Arriaga in a parenting child development class while on a tour of San Fernando high. Photo by David Crane/Los Angeles Daily News. (David Crane)
Has performance meter
A proponent of using data to measure success, Deasy has set benchmarks to measure the progress of his strategy. A performance meter - updated monthly with targets for graduation rates, math and English proficiency, attendance, parent and community engagement and campus safety - is tucked inside Deasy's daily planner, bannered across his Team Room and posted at www.lausd.net.
Pressed to gauge his own performance during his first year, Deasy awarded himself "a good grade" for improving teacher quality, noting that he's dismissed or denied tenure to more than 850 educators. By comparison, in the year before he took over just 10 teachers were fired and tenure was virtually automatic.
In addition, Deasy devised a controversial performance evaluation system that factors in test scores and parent and student comments, rather than relying primarily on a principal's observations. The system has been rolled out in a number of pilot schools, although its full implementation has been stymied by a legal challenge.
The teachers union opposes the so-called value-added system because leaders and members fear that teachers will be penalized if their students' test scores don't significantly increase.
Deasy pointed out that the district's graduation rate has ticked up more than six points to 56 percent and more students are proficient in English and math.
Finally, the district has added large numbers of charter seats and worked to replicate successful programs in both traditional and charter schools.
"But these grades I just gave myself don't matter," he insisted. "What does matter is whether or not they're going to change student achievement."
More teacher autonomy
When Deasy took over last April, he expected his biggest challenge would be mending the district's acrimonious relationship with United Teachers Los Angeles.
In November, he stood beside "my union president," Warren Fletcher, as the two announced a landmark deal that gives teachers more autonomy at local schools and blocks charter organizations from operating new and underperforming campuses under the Public School Choice initiative.
Deasy said the two sides have yet to agree on the new performance evaluations and other major issues, yet have forged a healthier working relationship.
"Warren and I meet every Friday morning and we talk almost every day," he said. "Their ability to move is slower than I would like, but their ability to have conversations on the most thorniest issues is not difficult. It's just not to where we want it yet."
Fletcher declined to comment, citing negotiations over furloughs and other cost-cutting measures.
Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter Schools Association, said he, too, has been able to work collegially with Deasy, despite the rivalries that pit charters against traditional schools.
"Dr. Deasy is working hard to keep us a vital part of the reform effort," he said. "He understands the potential that charters have. But it remains to be seen whether or not he'll be able to assemble the support to leverage that."
Deasy's campus visits frequently take him to Miramonte Elementary, the school that has become synonymous with the district's widening sex-abuse scandal.
The district came under fire for failing to notify Miramonte parents for more than a year that teacher Mark Berndt was suspected of abusing 23 students in a bizarre sex game. Deasy met with angry parents and ultimately replaced the entire Miramonte faculty for the rest of the school year.
He and school board member Nury Martinez also had to meet with parents at Telfair Elementary in Pacoima after the Daily News reported that teacher Paul Chapel had been arrested months earlier on molestation charges.
"I've seen another side of John, how personally he's taking this," Martinez said. "I've seen him as a colleague and a partner and a father ... I've seen him show incredible courage. He's the guy who needs to lead us out of these troubled times."
Seeking to restore the trust in the district, Deasy has given principals until April 30 to scour every personnel file at their schools for allegations of misconduct. Some 400 files have been sent to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which says about 300 of the cases warrant an investigation.
Deasy's usually brusque tone softened when he recalled chatting with "three little guys" during a recent stop at Miramonte, one of whom was so familiar with the superintendent that he called Deasy by his first name.
"I thought to myself, `Imagine the level of comfort to be able to do that,"' he said. "That was a good, healthy sign."
Contingency plan set
The state budget cuts that have drained some $2 billion from LAUSD's coffers over the last five years also threatened key elements of Deasy's reform plan, with the district facing a projected deficit of $390 million for 2012-13.
Lacking the money to fund state-mandated K-12 courses, Deasy crafted a plan to eliminate most adult and early-childhood education classes, and reallocate that money to the district's core mission.
Many advocates of the threatened programs hold Deasy personally responsible for the cuts, and continue to hold protests and demonstrations urging him to reverse his plan. But Deasy says his first responsibility is to K-12 students.
However, he did develop a contingency plan for restoring most of the programs. It relies on voters passing two proposed tax hikes on the November ballot - a sales-tax initiative proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown that would raise money for schools statewide, and a $298-a-year parcel tax promoted by Deasy that would benefit only LAUSD.
"It's very simple," Deasy said. "If we want these programs to stay at schools, we have the power to keep them. If we don't want them to stay at schools, we won't support them."
"... I don't think people in L.A. will turn their backs on kids," he said. "I think it will be hard and it is painful, but at the end of the day, I think we will not abandon them."
Difficult to please
Deasy does have his detractors, of course, who accuse him of being temperamental, autocratic, impatient and almost impossible to please. He admitted to having a temper - he's trying to cut back on swearing for Lent - and to being demanding, determined and very, very impatient.
"My God almighty," he said. "Kids have one year to learn to read at third-grade level. Are we going to take four years to figure that out?"
Scott Folsom, a parent advocate who serves on the state PTA board and attends nearly every school board meeting, gives Deasy an "incomplete" for his first year on the job.
"John has talked a great game about openness, communication, transparency and vision, but I have seen very little of it," he said. "I think the district has become more opaque. He's always challenged by cooperation - a skill you're supposed to learn in kindergarten."
School board members Bennett Kayser, Marguerite Poindexter Lamotte and Richard Vladovic declined comment or did not return phone calls for this story.
But their colleagues said they'd like to see Deasy improve communication - with teachers, the community and the board itself - as he begins his second year.
School board members Tamar Galatzan and Martinez, along with member Steve Zimmer and board President Monica Garcia also gave Deasy relatively high marks for his reform plan and his handling of the financial crisis and the sexual-abuse scandal.
"John brings a high-stakes, focused agenda," Garcia said. "He believes in schools that serve kids and in more graduation. He truly believes that opportunity is in reach."
Zimmer abstained from the vote to promote Deasy because no other candidate was being considered. Now, however, he calls the superintendent "one of the smartest men I've ever met in my life."
"He truly operates an A-plus game 110 percent of the time. I think a lot of people talk about his passion and urgency - that's John's calling card," said Zimmer, whose district stretches from Woodland Hills to El Segundo and Hollywood.
"The superintendent is the nexus of two jobs - big-picture leadership and day-to-day management. It takes an extraordinary amount of focus, energy and pure effort, and his is what has impressed me the most."