Monday, July 12, 2010

Obituary: ALFONSO B. PEREZ DIES AT 91; pioneered special education in L.A. schools

Perez also guided his alma mater, Roosevelt High, during a tense period of Chicano protest.

Alfonso B. Perez

A child of Mexican immigrants, Alfonso B. Perez guided Roosevelt High, his alma mater, during a tense period of Chicano protest, in addition to pioneering special education in L.A. schools. (unknown / July 3, 2010)

By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times

July 11, 2010 | 7:11 p.m. - Alfonso B. Perez, a veteran administrator who helped shape special education programs in the Los Angeles Unified School District and as principal guided his alma mater, Roosevelt High, during a tense period of Chicano protest, died July 2 at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. He was 91.

The cause was a heart attack, said his grandson, Paul Aguirre.

Perez joined the district as a teacher for disabled students in 1947, when few resources were available in public schools for students with physical and mental impairments. In 1956 he rose to become principal of Widney High School in central Los Angeles and turned it into a model campus where disabled students were encouraged to develop their academic skills, become more independent and participate in athletic programs.

In 1970 Perez took over as principal of Roosevelt High when the East L.A. school was beset with protests over substandard conditions. Perez was credited with restoring stability to the campus while introducing reforms that addressed the community's concerns about school quality.

He later served in various district-level posts, including director of special education. After his retirement in 1980, the district renamed one of its Eastside elementary schools the Alfonso B. Perez Special Education Center. It is now known as the Alfonso B. Perez School and serves elementary and secondary students.

"He was very dedicated. Everything he did was all for the kids," said Shizuko Akasaki, a former district administrator and colleague.

Perez was born in El Paso on Aug. 20, 1918. One of six children of Mexican immigrants, he moved with his family to East L.A. when he was 7. He excelled in track at Roosevelt High and went on to L.A. City College, where he studied for two years before being drafted in 1941.

During World War II he served in the China-Burma theater as a bombardier in the Air Force, earning the Air Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross with clusters. After the war he earned a bachelor's degree in physical education on the GI Bill at Occidental College and a master's in special education from USC. He taught P.E. for nine years in special education programs throughout Los Angeles. The district later published his master's thesis as a manual for special education teachers.

When he became principal of Widney in 1956, the campus consisted of an eight-room bungalow with a tiny yard that was, Perez said in a 1970 interview in The Times, "just a holding place" for disabled teenagers. During his tenure he expanded the campus, building classrooms, laboratories, shops with power tools and a full-sized gymnasium. The curriculum included physical education and driver training, two subjects that had long been considered inappropriate for students with serious physical challenges.

By the end of Perez's tenure, Widney was sending up to 30% of its students back into regular schools. He called his work at Widney "my dream come true."

So he was torn when, in 1970, he was asked to take on another challenge: heading Roosevelt, one of several East L.A. schools swept up in the Chicano protest movement. When he arrived, students were holding sick-outs and walking out of class for daily demonstrations. Protestors, including many non-students, stormed the school's gates, resulting in dozens of arrests. The administration building was firebombed.

Perez immediately moved to restore discipline, sending teachers to patrol the halls for errant students, locking classroom buildings during breaks and posting guards at the campus gates. He acknowledged that such tactics made him unpopular, but tensions eased as order was restored. He spearheaded a number of improvements, including longer class periods, the addition of a sixth period for electives, programs to foster better student-staff relations, and a campaign dubbed "Operation Pride" in which student volunteers painted the school.

Roosevelt was noticeably calmer by the time Perez left in the spring of 1971 to become a district administrator. He remained active in retirement, serving on the board of the Academic Decathlon and directing Fiesta Educativa, a group that helps disabled Latino children and their families.

Perez is survived by his wife, Celia Espinosa of Temecula; daughters Irene Mahaffey and Armida Aguirre, both of Murrieta, Diane Perez of Texas and Lydia Senteno of Chino Hills; nine grandchildren, 42 great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren


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