Published July 08, 2012
LOS ANGELES – Faced with a shocking case of a teacher accused of playing classroom sex games with children for years, Los Angeles schools Superintendent John Deasy delivered another jolt: He removed the school's entire staff — from custodians to the principal — to smash what he called a "culture of silence."
"It was a quick, responsible, responsive action to a heinous situation," he said. "We're not going to spend a long time debating student safety."
The controversial decision underscores the 51-year-old superintendent's shake-up of the lethargic bureaucracy at the nation's second-largest school district. His swift, bold moves have rankled some and won praise from others during his first year of leadership.
Hired with a mandate to boost achievement in the 660,000-pupil Los Angeles Unified School District, Deasy has become known for 18-hour days that involve everything from surprise classroom visits and picking up playground litter to lobbying city elite for donations and blasting Sacramento politicians over funding cuts.
He's also gained a reputation for outspokenness and a brisk decision-making style some have criticized as heavy-handed. Earlier this year, for instance, Deasy ordered a substitute teacher fired after finding students doing busy work.
"I'm intolerant when it comes to students being disrespected," he said in an interview sandwiched between school visits and meetings. "I do what I think is right and everyone has the right to criticize. You appreciate the critics, but you wouldn't get up in the morning if you listened to them."
Doing what he thinks is right has put him in some unusual positions, such as siding with plaintiffs who successfully sued the district over closely protected teachers' union tenets — seniority-based layoff policies and leaving out student test scores in teacher performance evaluations.
"He acts on behalf of kids, you can't fault him for that," said A.J. Duffy, the former president of the teachers union United Teachers Los Angeles, who now runs a charter school. "But there are processes. People do deserve a fair and equitable hearing."
As the school year was ending last month, Deasy was focused on hiring 80 new principals, particularly at troubled urban high schools some have called "dropout factories." Deasy pushed 50 current principals to retire or transferred them and he aims to interview replacement candidates himself. Developing leadership is a cornerstone of his reform strategy.
Deasy moves at a rapid clip, whether it's through the candidate lists, his reform agenda or in striding around school campuses. "Keeping up with Dr. Deasy" is a well-worn joke around the district.
He is under a tight, self-imposed, deadline to get reforms in place in four years and see higher test scores, graduation rates and other education metrics in eight years.
"The culture in this district has been talk, protest, argue, not actually do," he said. "This style has come up against that."
School board President Monica Garcia applauds Deasy's speed. "People are feeling very confident in his leadership," she said.
The urgency of his mission drives Deasy.
He's up at 3:30 a.m., goes for a run and reads emails and the news before starting office meetings at 5:30 a.m. His wiry frame, topped with a crewcut, emphasizes that meals are often a luxury unless connected with work — he keeps energy bars in an office drawer. A recent lunch consisted of frozen yogurt.
He works through much of the weekend, too, although he reserves Sunday nights for Patty, his wife of 27 years. The couple has three grown children who live in the Los Angeles area.
Deasy is not concerned about burnout, but he worries about getting engulfed in pessimism. "It's 101 percent negativity all the time," he said.
So when there's good news, he revels in it. He ticks off recent increases in language proficiency rates for English learners, and declines in dropouts and suspensions.
He hopes to see more results from new policies he's pushed through, including giving teachers and principals more autonomy and more rigorous graduation requirements.
Once a week, his driver takes him on a round of unannounced visits to a few of the 1,000-plus schools, a source of both inspiration and exasperation as he moseys around corridors alone, introducing himself to students as "Dr. D."
There's no idle chitchat. Deasy fires questions about grades or graduation at students and enrollment or staffing at administrators.
He gets advice on managing an organization with a $6 billion budget and 65,000 employees from his executive coach, Kevin Sharer, the former chief executive of Amgen, the world's largest biotech company.
However, there was nothing to prepare him for the case of Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt, who has pleaded not guilty to accusations of feeding students cookies smeared with his semen in "tasting games."
Deasy's removal of the school's staff resulted in protests by parents and a raft of union grievances. The teachers, who were warehoused at another location, may now return to the classroom at Miramonte or another school, Deasy said.
Deasy also ordered principals to pull teacher misconduct files from the past 40 years. Those files are under reviewed by a special panel to determine if further action is warranted. Some 500 previously unreported cases have been forwarded so far to the state teacher licensing commission.
Teachers union President Warren Fletcher lambasted the move as a hasty and counterproductive effort to deflect attention from managerial failures.
Fiscal issues loom as the district's greatest challenge. The district has lost $2.7 billion in state funding and laid off 12,000 employees over the past five years. For the upcoming school year, 4,300 employees lost their jobs, and the rest agreed to 10 furlough days, including five fewer school days, to close a $390 million shortfall.
"He got handed a pretty rough plate," said Charles Kerchner, education professor at Claremont Graduate University. "The whole district is sort of teetering financially."
Deasy has formed a foundation, The Los Angeles Fund for Public Education, to seek private donors.
"That a city this size and this wealthy does not invest more philanthropically in its public education, that, to me, has been pretty amazing," he said.
Deasy hadn't planned to pursue an education career. The son of two Massachusetts teachers, he aimed to be a doctor but couldn't afford medical school. He wanted to get married so he became a science teacher and found his calling.
He quickly ascended the career ladder, serving as superintendent at school districts in Rhode Island, California and Maryland before taking a job with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation where he worked on policy issues, including teacher evaluations.
He jumped at the chance to go to LAUSD, a district that is 73 percent Latino and 80 percent low income. One of his motivations is working to offer privileges afforded him, a white male, to others. Pictures of Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr. and a Barack Obama "Hope" poster decorate his office.
"This is where it matters," he said. "Delivering opportunities to kids."
On a recent visit to Esteban Torres High School in East Los Angeles, two seniors inform him they are the first in their families to graduate high school. Both said they plan to pursue criminal justice studies at community college.
A wide smile breaks out on Deasy's face as he congratulates them heartily. "You see these men," he said later. "It's what keeps you going."