Los Angeles Unified School District
We must deliver on our promise to educate every student to the highest quality. We are still very much in the thick of the civil rights movement, only now a cup of coffee at the lunch counter is a diploma for our youth.
When you meet former Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy for the first time, a few characteristics stand out: the no-nonsense crew cut, the snappy New England accent and the handshake.
Los Angeles magazine calls it “a thrust of the forearm, a vigorous grasp, a single hard pump carrying all the electric force of a defibrillator.”
With much the same vigor, Deasy took charge of the nation’s second-largest school district in 2011. He dedicated himself to an aim no superintendent, urban or otherwise, previously achieved: graduating every student ready for higher education and a meaningful career path. And when he says every student, he means every student.
Deasy’s refusal to lower expectations — for himself, the district or any student — comes from his firm vision of education as an issue of social justice. As he puts it, “All our youth deserve orange juice,” Deasy says. “Not just orange drink.”
For Deasy, “orange juice” is shorthand for any number of high-quality educational opportunities too often denied the low-income students of color who attend LAUSD. Among those opportunities is access to college-preparatory courses like Advanced Placement. Fifty percent more of the district’s high school students enrolled in AP courses in 2013 than did six years earlier. And they aren’t just taking more of the classes; they also are taking more AP exams — which can earn them college credit — at a similar clip.
“Even as our overall high school enrollment shrinks, more students are choosing to take AP classes and exams,” he said.
In addition, Deasy — who previously served as superintendent for several other districts across the country — pushed principals to assume more responsibility for their schools’ performance, advocated for changes in annual evaluations to provide richer feedback and support to teachers and worked to offer healthier school meals.
He also focused on ensuring that the students who start the school year behind grade level were assigned to some of the district’s strongest teachers. To a school administrator who questioned the notion of assigning the “best” to teach the “worst,” the Los Angeles Times reports Deasy unleashed his characteristic straightforwardness: “You really shouldn’t teach in LAUSD if you believe that.”
His efforts to improve outcomes for students extended far beyond instruction and curriculum. When Deasy first joined LAUSD, for example, he worked with school leaders across the district to scrutinize disciplinary policies because of their “gross disproportionality.” The district data were stunning, and reflective of national trends: In high school, black boys and Latino girls were being suspended at far higher rates than were other students, even for the same offenses.
Deasy encouraged alternative disciplinary methods for actions considered “willful defiance,” which included things like failing to bring materials to class or refusing to pick up a piece of paper dropped on the floor. In one case, a student and a teacher wrote letters to each other explaining their perspectives instead. The student told the Los Angeles Times, “We talked about what happened and were friends at the end of the day.” As a result of this shift in practice, the number of instructional hours lost to suspensions in the district plummeted. At the same time, more students report feeling “safe” at school.
When results from the 2012-13 school year were released, LAUSD offered some good news: While state averages in student achievement declined for the first time in a decade, Los Angeles improved. What’s more, English language learners made the biggest one-year gains in the district’s history. And high school graduation rates increased by 12 percentage points, also historic one-year gains.
Deasy will be the first to tell you that a long road still remains before the district meets his original goal. But thanks to the improvements made during his tenure, the district is headed in the right direction.
Began his career as an assistant principal and dean of students
Superintendent, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District
Superintendent, Prince George's County Public Schools
Deputy Superintendent & Superintendent, Los Angeles Unified School District