Thursday, December 27, 2007


‘You have to deal with the politics. I don’t think that you can avoid it.’

More than a year into his job as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, David Brewer says he wants to "segue into partnerships with the community." - Photo by Gary McCarthy

by Gene C. Johnson Jr., Staff Writer | Los Angeles Wave Newspapers

At the close of 2007 — during which a power struggle between Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the L.A. Unified School District resulted in a new mayor-friendly majority on the school board, and a judge’s ruling reaffirming that board’s legal authority over public education — no individual has been closer to the most city’s most politically charged issue than David L. Brewer.

Unanimously selected by the LAUSD board to be superintendent and awarded a four-year contract in November 2006, Brewer has now concluded a year of assessment in terms of the needed changes for the school district. During an exclusive interview with the Wave in his downtown office, the 61-year-old retired Navy Admiral explained why he is calling 2008 his “year of execution.”


What were some of the things that you were able to accomplish during your first year as superintendent?


I’ve stabilized a major crisis, that’s the payroll system — a crisis that I inherited. My first year was clearly centered around assessments. We have created several new positions. I have cut the budget by $95 million and 500 positions. I was able to use those deficiencies to create some new positions, [such as] a deputy for Professional Learning, Development and Leadership — which I found that we were severely lacking in this entire organization — not just in teachers and principals, but in the entire organization. The other thing is that any type of organization has to have innovation, what we call research and development. So we created an innovation division. Through that particular division we’re going to … segue way into partnerships with the community. Like I said when I first arrived here: education is the responsibility of the entire community. This give the community — what we call network partners — an opportunity to come in and work formally with our students. Here’s a key point: I did not arrive at the beginning of the school year. I arrived at the middle of the school year. So for all points and purposes, I had one-half of a school year in order to get this done. So I think we moved pretty fast. This is the year of execution. This will be my first full year. The board did not approve of these positions until July. People have to take that into consideration and put everything into context. When you arrive in the middle of the school year, you don’t have the same opportunities to execute as quickly. But we are going to execute this year.

How does your going about the “year of execution” relate to your military training?

It relates in terms of its intensity. This is a very intense job. I have to apply a lot of the same skills, change management, leadership, etc. — even with the media. We had a lot of media training in the Navy and … this [endeavor] is media-intense. I think that has been one of the biggest surprises for me is how much media attention I get.

Are you bothered at all by the media attention?

I take it in stride. For me, it’s an opportunity to speak to the public. Because as I’ve said before, the community should come to realize that education is everybody’s responsibility.

Well, in terms of the black community, what is your reaction to being under its very watchful collective eye?

Again, in my assessments, one the first things I found out very quickly is that African-American males are the lowest performing in the school district. So I immediately began to focus on that. We have two outstanding boys’ academies right now. One at King-Drew and one at Jordan [high schools]. We’re going to benchmark and replicate those because we realize that, not just for African-American males, but males in general — because you can’t segregate by race — so all of our boy’s academies will have boys. So, in essence, that’s one of the things that we’ve already accomplished. And they’re doing well, by the way.

What is your relationship with the mayor? How often do you meet with him to discuss education issues?

I’m very supportive of the mayor’s [education] initiative. In fact, we’re working with him and helping him to choose his family of schools. He’s choosing two families of schools. Again, by creating our Innovation Division that facilitated that process, that relationship. People don’t understand that you have to create the organizational construct. You have to create the structure and the systemic changes, everything else is just ideas. And even if you tried to execute them, they would not be executed effectively. We have the Innovation Division, so the mayor can now segue way in with his partnership for L.A. schools.

What is being done to close the achievement gap between black and Latino students and whites and Asian-Americans?

Here’s the key: literacy. Literacy is the key. For Latinos, it’s English-language learners —as well as several other ethnic groups. So we are focused like a laser on language acquisition in terms of English-language learners. And in terms of African-Americans, it’s standard English. African-Americans, many of our kids speak the language of the streets, but they don’t speak academic English. So we’re treating that as language acquisition — a second language acquisition. Not to take away from your [African-American] culture, do your own thing. But when you come into that classroom, you’re going to speak academic English. We recognized that very quickly and so that’s why we [had] a national summit on language acquisition Dec. 13-14 for English-language learners and Spanish English-language learners, because we found out that they are [among the] lowest-performers in the entire school district. Unfortunately, African-Americans are our lowest performers.

What is your reaction/response to several new charter schools opening up in South Los Angeles, for example the View Park Preparatory schools?

That [charter schools] started back in the late ‘90s. L.A. [the school district] actually asked charter schools to relieve overcrowding. They continued to proliferate. I call it the vacuum theory. If you have an academic vacuum, somebody’s going to fill it. And what charters are doing is filling that academic vacuum. However, we treat charters as partners. Our best traditional schools are still better than the best charters. That’s a point that’s missed. One of the best schools in the entire state is Balboa Magnet. There aren’t any charters that can compete with that. Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies is number 47 in the nation. What they do at the Watts Learning Center is very intense in terms of curriculum and instruction. More importantly, they take these kids on field trips — to Africa. We do have great charters. Watts Learning Center is a school that, as a part of the language acquisition summit … will be brought into that process. We want to see what they are doing at Watts Learning Center in order to drive student achievement among African-Americans. They have one the highest academic performance index of any elementary school in the entire district — charter or traditional — and they are a charter school. This is why we have to study charters — and benchmark and replicate what they do.

How many hours does it take a day to do your job?

I work half-days, you know. I work 12 to 14 hours a day. Being given my military background, I get up early in the morning, have my physical fitness workout just about every morning. I lift weights. I alternate between lifting weights — upper body and then I’ll run the next day, lower body and then run. It’s the “Body for Life” [program] by Bill Phillips.

As superintendent, when will you know that you have accomplished all of the goals you have set out?

When we’ve begun to meet some of student achievement goals. I’m focused on student achievement. And it’s very hard to do in the district because of all of the politics. There’s so much politics in L.A.

So do you see yourself as a politician as well as an educator?

Well you have to deal with the politics. I don’t think that you can avoid it. So to the extent that you deal with it, that’s one thing. But my job is to, really, improve student achievement here in Los Angeles and to make sure that our children graduate college-prepared and that’s my vision. I will know when we are successful when see a higher percentage of students who are proficient and advanced as opposed to basic and below. Right now we are at 33.4 percent in proficiency and advancement. So that means we have to get to at least 50 to 60 percent proficiency and advancement. When we cross that threshold, then we can say whatever programs we put in place have taken … effect. One of my best attributes is that I know how to manage change. I know how to find efficiencies in an organization.

Do you have a yearly plan for achieving your goals?

This year it’s high priority schools. In other words we’re looking at our lowest-performing schools and we’re going to create a plan — strategies and tactics — to improve student achievement in our high-priority schools. The following year we’ll take those same strategies and tactics and begin to permeate those into the entire system so that we can raise student achievement for the rest of the district.

What can the district to do reduce childhood obesity?

We just hired an executive chef from USC to help us with menu development. Plus the [LAUSD] board had already passed a policy several years ago taking junk food and sodas out of the school district. Also we need to teach our families, and children nutrition — and get more physical education for children. This school year will be the year of execution. I invite the entire community to come in and help us. We’re going to find ways for most people to come and help us, in terms of educating our children. L.A. Unified School District was not structured to accept help. People would come and volunteer, but nothing would happen. That’s why I created the Office of Parent and Civic Engagement.

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