A Rock and a Hard Place

After 32 Years of Working His Way Up, LAUSD Supt. Ruben Zacarias Is Caught Between a Public Demanding Dramatic Change and a Desire to Give His District the Benefit of the Doubt.

They have been called to the principal’s office for a moment they have been dreading. The niceties are over–Can I get you coffee? Take your coat off. How’s your brother?–and their hard work has been reduced to a few disappointing numbers. It could not be more devastating, more embarrassing.
Nor more unusual. * This is no ordinary principal-teacher conference. The principal in this case is Supt. Ruben Zacarias, who eight months ago took on the daunting task of guiding the L.A. Unified School District into the 21st century. And he has summoned a delegation from 116th Street School to explain how their students landed toward the bottom of the district’s 100 worst-performing schools.

“I was looking at your re-designation rate,” Zacarias begins,
referring to the pace at which students transfer from bilingual classes into mainstream English. Principal Patricia Dawkins sighs and rolls her eyes, bracing for the numbers. A fat zero. Nada. Not one student cleared the bar last year at the South Los Angeles elementary school, where nearly half the students begin school speaking Spanish. Bilingual education is not 116th Street’s only woe. A third of its teachers have no formal job training. Only 4% of last year’s fifth graders scored at or above the national median on a standardized reading test; three quarters fell far below average.

Were 116th Street alone, it would be sad enough. But dozens of other schools in the 661-campus district fare equally poorly. As a whole, the district’s students rank in the bottom third nationwide. No amount of explanation,
justification or clarification can change one simple fact: It is Zacarias’
job to fix it.

So the superintendent gets down to the nitty-gritty with Dawkins. He pulls out a sheaf of individual students’ test scores. Look here, he says,
this girl scored so high. Is she gifted? Has she been tested? Why not? And this boy is so low. You have to really work to do that badly. Has he been tested for special education? “This is serious business,” he warns.
“There are those nationally, locally, who would just as soon I wipe all of you out and start all over . . . I don’t want to do that.” It is classic Zacarias: Alternately gracious and disarmingly direct, caught between a public demanding dramatic change and a conscience yearning to give the nation’s second-largest school district the benefit of the doubt to validate 32 years spent working his way up from temporary preschool instructor to perhaps the last hope for 680,000 pupils.

Last July, Zacarias, a Chatsworth resident, assumed the challenge sought by only a handful of competitors, even after a nationwide search and the promise of a six-figure salary, a wood-paneled office and a company car.
When some likely contenders were contacted, they laughed at the prospect:
Who would willingly jump into that meat grinder?

Running any urban school district is a thankless job, leading to average tenures across the nation of fewer than three years. Recently, the state and federal governments have turned up the volume on threats to tie funding to performance. In Los Angeles, there is the added urgency of breakup advocates nipping at the mammoth district’s heels.

Zacarias, 69, sought the promotion instead of quietly retiring because,
he repeats like a mantra, he believes he can make a difference. No one else has held positions at every level in the district–teacher, principal, regional administrator, deputy superintendent. That makes him uniquely qualified,
he says, to determine what is broken–inadequately prepared teachers paired with the poorest-prepared students–and how to mend it: amp up on-the-job training and mentors for the teachers, enrich the children’s education with such things as after-school tutoring.

“It sounds corny, but I really care about these children, I care about this district, I care about this profession,” Zacarias says.
“Part of me’s the idealist.” Such dogged, some would say blind,
optimism helped him win the job over an enthusiastic former bank executive who promised to streamline district bureaucracy–and work for nothing–and a suave New York educator who vowed to turn the place inside out.

But can L.A. Unified’s savior really be a district lifer who has not only watched but participated as the school system lumbered from being a magnet for middle-class mothers such as Mary Wold to a place such people flee?

When Wold and her husband moved to Southern California in 1965 with two toddlers, they chose to live in Brentwood–not Santa Monica or Beverly Hills,
which have their own smaller school districts–because they wanted their children to attend Los Angeles Unified schools. “Our Realtor told us what a fine school system it was,” Wold recalls. “And there was just no question of private school in those days.”

In those days, the district was 61% white, largely middle class and segregated;
now it is 68.5% Latino and increasingly poor. Bellagio School, where Wold’s children enrolled, is a symbol of those demographic changes. Closed in 1984 due to underenrollment, it reopened four years later as a center for new immigrants, bused in from crowded inner-city neighborhoods.

There are those who argue that comparing L.A. Unified to its own history or a national average is absurd. Today’s students start school already behind and then get less, especially in California, where education funding is low.

In an Education Week article that appeared shortly after Zacarias’ appointment,
researcher Richard Rothstein advised the new superintendent to “explain the truths rarely discussed in polite company nowadays: Academic performance of the district’s students will always be and should always be considerably below national averages . . . . The notion that children in the Los Angeles public schools . . . should, if only the schools did their job, achieve at the same level as children from more-advantaged communities is a conceit with unfortunate appeal to both liberals and conservatives.” Unwilling to take such advice, Zacarias has set his goal high. He wants to see low-performing schools raise their test scores–the public’s most basic measure of success–by 5 percentile points this year, even though his predecessor fell short of a more modest goal. He wants the entire district to reach for the national average within two years, even though he failed to meet that mark himself as a principal. “I really feel we can rise above all this talk about language minorities and poverty,” Zacarias says. “And it really isn’t a question of money, either. . . . It’s a question of focus. The public is tired of excuses.”

* * *

Breed Street school, a spanish-style campus in boyle heights, is a touchstone of Ruben Zacarias’ life. A student there in the mid-1930s, he returned in the 1960s as a teacher, later as principal, and when he became one of a dozen regional superintendents in 1982, his Eastside turf included Breed.

Today, virtually all of Breed Street’s students are Latino and poor enough to qualify for government-subsidized meals. Spanish is the language of two-thirds of its classes, and its playground was off limits to students for two years because of shootings nearby.

When Zacarias began kindergarten at Breed Street, he was a virtual orphan,
having just lost both his mother, to pleurisy, and his father, to dreams of a movie production business in Mexico. Zacarias lived with his grandmother and his older brother in a bungalow that still stands on Rogers Street,
near the Los Angeles River. In those days, Boyle Heights was an ethnic amalgam,
a center of Los Angeles Jewish life and, increasingly, a destination for Japanese, Russian and Armenian immigrants. As with many other immigrant children, young Ruben spoke not a word of English before starting school.
The educational philosophy then was rapid assimilation, so there were no special language programs, a stark contrast with today, when nearly half of L.A. Unified’s students receive tailored language lessons.

Zacarias was thrust into an all-English class on his very first day.
He recalls no trauma and says his experience helped mold his thoughts on bilingual education, which balances somewhere between the hard-line supporters,
who believe children fare best if given seven years to move gradually from their native language to English, and vehement opponents, who advocate a return to cold-turkey English. Zacarias considers three years of language programs adequate.

“When I argue with people who are absolutely inflexibly pro-bilingual,
the really extreme ones, I always ask them, ‘What was your first language?’
” he said. “They usually say ‘Spanish,’ yet they speak this perfect English. I say, ‘Did you have a bilingual program?’ And they say, ‘No.’

Even such moderate skepticism is unusual for L.A. Unified, a bilingual education pioneer. Zacarias actually helped the district start down the path, heading its first bilingual branch in 1981, but he insists he pushed even then for English to be the goal. Over the years, a steady stream of Latino mothers and fathers beseeched Zacarias to help their children learn English faster, convincing him that he is right.

Martha Gonzalez, who visited his office as a member of the 116th Street School delegation, nods as Zacarias translates his philosophy to her in his fluid, formal Spanish. One of her daughters graduated last year with top grades in the school’s bilingual education classes but was only given the test to switch to mainstream English instruction after Gonzalez insisted.

“The students don’t feel good when they get to middle school and stay in ESL [English as a Second Language classes],” Gonzalez says.
“The other students say they’re retarded.” Such a testimonial is one reason Zacarias decided to meet individually with representatives from each of the bottom 100 schools, even though the process consumed critical early months of his administration. In whispers, insiders slammed him for missing his own staff meetings and being inaccessible to union leaders,
then gave him more flak for the 100-schools approach. “The 100 schools is the biggest fraud in the world,” says Eli Brent, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, the principals’ union. “He’s made those principals scapegoats, and they’ll never forget it.”

Zacarias responded to such criticism by prefacing his meetings with each school group with a disclaimer: It is not your problem; it is our problem.
And because the district is in good financial condition for the first time in years, Zacarias can even offer some cash. On learning that he would free
$25,000 to supplement after-school tutoring, 116th Street Principal Dawkins gasps: “Oh my God. Thank you.”

* * *

Zacarias likes to recount the time some parents organized an adult social evening in Breed Street’s auditorium. When they came up short on the money to pay the musical conjunto, they begged “Dr. Zacarias” to be the featured attraction. In a money dance popular in some Latin cultures,
anyone who wanted to step out with Zacarias had to pin a dollar on his shirt.
By the end of the evening, he laughs, he was exhausted–and covered with money.

The tale speaks legions about Zacarias: the tradition, the personal touch,
the joy at being liked and revered all at once. Always impeccably dressed,
always a gentleman with almost courtly mannerisms, Zacarias is a curious combination of loner and empathetic listener.

He was the principal who stood at the school doors each morning to shake every child’s hand, then directed those with dirty faces or untucked shirts to the restroom. As superintendent, when he sees a teacher struggling with a box of books at headquarters, he grabs it out of her arms. At times chameleon-like,
he strives to strike a familiar chord with everyone, alternately pulling a teachers’ union membership card or a school police officer’s badge from his wallet, depending on the audience.

“His real asset is he’s a comfortable person to be with,” says Deputy Supt. Ron Prescott, a longtime colleague.

Even some skeptics have softened. William Ouchi, a UCLA management professor who last year became chairman of the district’s largest reform movement,
LEARN (Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now), last fall faulted Zacarias’ slow pace and his lack of follow-through. But after the superintendent attended a LEARN leadership retreat in November, Ouchi relaxed.

“He listened to some very frank and occasionally very harsh words,”
Ouchi says. “He didn’t. . . [deny] that there are tremendously urgent problems. He said, ‘I’m with you, I’m prepared to stand up and lead the charge.’ I think we were all impressed.”

In mid-February, Zacarias acted on promises made that November day. In his first major speech, he required that all schools adopt some of LEARN’s reform principles, such as school-based decision-making. But he tied that freedom to improving test scores. And he went beyond those initiatives,
adopting an uncharacteristically get-tough stance: Principals and teachers of schools that continue to decline will be held personally responsible.
For students, the practice of social promotion–where children are automatically moved from grade to grade–will end.

Zacarias is aware that criticism of such moves will follow, but he is known for being calm under fire. That ability may be partly the side-effect of a tumultuous personal life: His only brother died in a car crash; two marriages failed; one of his five children is autistic, another died of leukemia in Zacarias’ arms when the boy was just 11.

There are those who suggest that son Michael’s death broke Zacarias’
fire and drive. But he says the loss gave him the tough skin he needs to handle the district’s top job. Privately, close friends also fret about the toll his personal approach takes on his health. Even Brent, the administrators’
union president, who is several years older, says he cannot imagine how Zacarias manages: “The mayor calls, he has to get on the phone, board members want a personal audience, on and on. He’s like the pope, but God is not on his side.”

Zacarias digs into details at the risk of spreading himself too thin.
He wants telephones answered after three rings and callers courteously transferred.
He is even contemplating a dress code for teachers. “I believe in the value of role models–in the way we behave, the way we speak and, quite frankly, the way we dress,” he says. “I go into a classroom sometimes and I can’t tell where the students end and the teachers begin.”

Zacarias wore a suit when he showed up to teach at Breed Street School in 1966. After a few months of substituting, his only training then, he was assigned to fifth grade. He was part of the post-Sputnik teaching corps,
in the days when working in the inner city was a notch in the belt of any socially conscious young adult. But at age 37, Zacarias was far older than many other newcomers, having served as a sergeant in the Korean War before taking his USC undergraduate film degree to Mexico. Disillusioned with the commercialism of the movies his family was making, he left and spent a decade traveling the United States as a billboard salesman.

While that provided valuable life experience, it did nothing to prepare him for teaching. But Zacarias and other neophyte teachers of his day were greeted by an extensive support system of on-campus mentors and specialists sent out regularly from headquarters.

Such programs have since fallen victim to budget cuts. Zacarias would like to reinstate them, since one in six LAUSD teachers lacks a basic teaching credential. Last fall, he began by adding $5 million to the state-funded mentor teacher program to double their numbers, ensuring one for every two inexperienced teachers. The ability to teach is all that really matters,
Zacarias says: “When you close the classroom door, that teacher is the school district.”

* * *

After teaching for four years, Zacarias held several administrative jobs,
including helping engineer the district’s initial desegregation plan. In 1975, having gained a master’s in education administration, he returned to Breed Street as principal. There he honed his communication skills with parents and established a dedicated corps of 35 volunteers, some of whom still come to the school.

One, Bertha Calleros, credits Zacarias with saving her oldest son, Edward.
“He was restless and malicious; he hurt other kids,” Calleros says in Spanish, her eyes welling at the memory. Misbehavior in class and hitting a playground supervisor resulted in his expulsion from third grade.

Calleros agreed with the decision in principle, but reality was tougher.
She had no car, and her younger son was in kindergarten at Breed Street,
so she went to Zacarias and pleaded. To her surprise, he agreed to reverse his decision, on one condition: Edward had to spend a year reporting to the principal’s office–every day, all day.

Teachers sent the boy’s assignments to the office, and Zacarias ate lunch with him. It touched off a cambio–a change–like night to day, Calleros remembers. Edward “came out after that year an adult.” He went on to college, and now he’s a chemical engineer.

Yet, by test scores alone–the measures Zacarias is using to evaluate the 100 lowest-performing schools–he was not wholly successful during his three years as Breed Street’s leader. Math scores rose slightly in several grades, but reading skills at the crucial third-grade year fell steadily,
from near the national and statewide medians to significantly below.

Zacarias says the 1975-78 scores are only a snapshot of one or more classes,
that a composite score for the whole school–which he was unable to locate for this story–would likely paint a rosier picture. But the 100 schools also were chosen based on a one-class (fourth grade) snapshot.

Similar questions arise about Zacarias’ previous professional pinnacle–his stint as the Eastside’s top administrator under a now-defunct regional system.
By then, Zacarias had completed his doctorate in multicultural education.
Popular with teachers’ union leaders and administrators alike, his technique there was like a dry run for the superintendency. He summoned principals of low-scoring schools, guided them toward a plan of action, then held them to it.

Test scores did rise impressively during his first two years. But looking over his four-year tenure there, scores–again for third grade–fell during the next two years, and at a steeper clip than district scores as a whole.

Together, his records as principal and regional administrator raise a nagging question: How can Zacarias expect Los Angeles schools to accomplish something that he himself was unable to fully achieve?

* * *

During his lifetime, Ruben Zacarias has watched Los Angeles more than triple in size as wave after wave of new immigrants arrive. And he believes that his own ascension, by example, can influence them all. The power of having a Latino superintendent now, the second in history and the district’s first bilingual one, is most evident at predominantly Latino schools. Zacarias translates his remarks into Spanish and gets hearty applause.

The campaign waged last year on Zacarias’ behalf was vintage ethnic politics,
with clear roots in Eastside tradition, right down to the slogan borrowed from Cesar Chavez: Si se puede (Yes, we can). Rumors that Zacarias actually coordinated the uprising are unfounded, he and activists maintain.

“I was troubled by it,” he says. “Once I almost threatened to back out. They were planning mass marches, and I said, ‘Back off. Don’t do that.’ “

But becoming an administrator, and therefore part of the status quo,
weakens the link to activist supporters, who can turn around and bite. Importer Sigifredo Lopez became an admirer during Zacarias’ days as Breed Street principal, when Lopez’s children studied there. But on a recent evening,
nursing a cognac at La Costa in Montebello–Zacarias’ favorite restaurant–Lopez sounds more like a foe. “I think he has done nothing so far” Lopez says in a mixture of Spanish and heavily accented e a decision. It is this polite nature–a traditional posture as servant of the board–that often clashes with public pressure to move faster, be a leader.

Advising skeptics to wait and see, Zacarias says, “People say I’m Mr. Nice Guy; even the term ‘weak’ has been used. They mistake respect and courtesy for weakness.” Zacarias has gained an unexpected ally in L.A.
Mayor Richard Riordan, who has made a career of publicly berating the school district. Perhaps it was the working friendship between the two leaders that led Riordan to turn his ire toward the school board last month, saying,
“They don’t have the mental equipment, the experience equipment, to run it right.”

* * *

During a Saturday morning town hall meeting last November at Los Angeles’
oldest black church, Zacarias was bombarded with complaints about poor teachers,
funding inequities and stark figures about male African American students,
who rank highest in suspensions and lowest in achievement.

In the West Adams neighborhood surrounding the First AME Church, the school district is sometimes viewed as the white oppressor, even though many of its top administrators are minorities. “There’s a conspiracy to destroy African American males,” said Ozell Brazil, who runs a private college counseling program. “It’s not politically correct to say so,
but we know it’s true.”

As the heated meeting progressed, Zacarias jotted down speakers’ names and, during his concluding remarks, in a Dale Carnegie-esque technique he often employs, invited a few to give his assistant their telephone numbers.

Among them was parent Nancy Goree. Goree graduated from Dorsey High in 1979, then went to West Los Angeles City College, where she floundered.
She wants something better for her 7-year-old son: “I don’t want him to go out in the job force or any other situation where he is not as equally educated as other children.”

Goree told the crowd that her goal had collided with substantial obstacles.
When she moved from Westchester to the mid-Wilshire area, she was informed mid-semester that her son had to change schools. Immediately. At the new school, he was given the same reading primer in second grade that he had completed in first grade. Her protestations had gone unheeded. Could Zacarias help?

The superintendent agreed to have someone look into it and get back to her. Nearly a month later, Goree had not heard a word, further cementing her view of the district as a non-responsive monolith. If Zacarias intends to humanize a dehumanized institution, such small gestures count.

“I know the superintendent is a busy man, but he has assistants,
he has assistants’ assistants,” Goree said. “I did expect to hear from him–I mean he had the man take my number. But then again, after all I’ve been through, I didn’t really expect it.”

Told later by a reporter that Goree had never received a call, a rare flash of anger crosses Zacarias’ face. “She hasn’t? That’s the kind of thing that just bugs the heck out of me. Do you have her number?”

He takes a breath, regaining his composure: “You know, it isn’t that people here don’t care; they just get so involved with things, they forget who the customers are.”

Amy Pyle Is a Times Education Writer



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