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, John 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 John Deasy says every student, he means every student.
His refusal to lower expectations — for himself, the system 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, not just orange drink.”
For John, “orange juice” is shorthand for any number of high-quality educational opportunities too often denied the low-income students of color. Among those opportunities is access to college-preparatory courses like Advanced Placement. Fifty percent more high school students in Los Angeles enrolled in AP courses in 2013 than did six years earlier. And they didn’t just take more of the classes; they also took more AP exams — which can earn them college credit — at a similar clip.
In addition, John — who has served as superintendent in 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 reported that John unleashed his characteristic straightforwardness: “You really shouldn’t teach in LAUSD if you believe that.”
As a superintendent, his efforts to improve outcomes for students extended far beyond instruction and curriculum. When John 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.
He 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 Times, “We talked about what happened and were friends at the end of the day.” Because of this shift in practice, the number of instructional hours lost to suspensions in the district plummeted. At the same time, more students reported feeling “safe” at school.
John’s passion for reimagining school discipline and supporting all students is now driving his current work as chief executive officer of Reset Foundation, which is creating alternatives for young people and effectively cutting off the school-to-prison pipeline. With Reset, he hopes to provide rigorous education and opportunities for personal development to “a set of young people who are forgotten.” Instead of languishing in a punitive system that doesn’t prepare them for success, students will learn “what to do when you get out, how to talk when you get out, how to navigate the system to get back into school,” he says.
His goals now are as lofty as those he set for LAUSD, including reducing recidivism by 50 percent. Based on John’s track record, there is little doubt the young people served by Reset will soon have far more than just “orange drink.”
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