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In this photo taken Thursday, June 14, 2012 Los Angeles Unified School District LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy tours the district in Los Angeles. Developing school leadership is a cornerstone of Deasy's strategy to reform Los Angeles Unified School District and sorting through principals underscores his philosophy that nothing in the sprawling district is too minute to warrant his attention. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
LA schools superintendent shakes up district
First Published Jul 07 2012 10:13 am • Last Updated Jul 07 2012 12:05 pm

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."

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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.


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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.

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