It is 10 a.m. on the hot asphalt at Figueroa Street School, and hundreds of children sit in cross-legged rows while speaker after speaker accept awards for saving the life of a teacher shot earlier this year.
Behind the dais a man in a double-breasted suit waits patiently, eyes cast downward, scribbling on a note pad. As the honorees–the school board president, a police officer, paramedic, doctor–finish their speeches, the man steps to the podium and sums up their comments in fluid Spanish. When there are jokes, the translator gets the laugh because at this South-Central elementary school–like many around the Los Angeles Unified School District–a majority of the students know little English.
This translator is no trained interpreter. He is Deputy Supt. Ruben Zacarias, the district’s No. 2 official–and highest-ranked Latino–whose name zoomed into the public mind as the prime candidate for the top job when Supt. Sid Thompson disclosed his plans to retire.
Latino activists are aggressively promoting Zacarias, a Los Angeles native and 30-year veteran of the school system, as the obvious choice to lead a district where two-thirds of the students are Latino and as many as 300,000 are in bilingual programs. He holds a doctorate in education–as well as a USC film degree–and they say nothing short of prejudice could deny him the job.
“No one is better prepared. No one better understands the unique challenges and needs of this district,” wrote state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) in a letter asking the school board to forsake a national search.
Others, however, need to be convinced that the 67-year-old Chatsworth resident is the leader needed now as L.A. Unified faces its own possible breakup and struggles to reform the quality of education it offers. Some want the board to search widely for the best talent to guide the district into the next century.
Virgil Roberts, a Los Angeles lawyer long involved in education reforms, said the decision will be crucial. “This is not to denigrate Ruben, but there’s an opportunity to . . . send a message by their selection. I would really like to see them make a good selection but not a predictable selection.”
Zacarias, who began his career as an elementary school substitute teacher, says his record will stand up to any competition. Campaigning behind the scenes for superintendent, he says he will be an “ambassador for children,” trying to reinvigorate community support for the 660-campus district.
When the speeches ended at Figueroa Street School, Zacarias urged the principal to reverse her decision to let dignitaries file out first–adults who had spent the morning under a shady tent.
“No, no,” he said quietly. “Let the kids get inside! They’re hot.”
Failing to change her mind, he turned to the other adults, waving his hands in a shooing motion: “C’mon everybody. Move so the kids can get out of the sun.”
Zacarias grew up in Boyle Heights, where his grandmother raised him after his mother died of pleurisy and his father returned to Mexico to work in the family movie production business. Maria Islas made it clear that school was a priority, Zacarias said, even though he understood little of what was taught at first because he had spoken only Spanish at home and his teachers spoke only English.
Married and divorced twice, Zacarias has fathered five children. One son was born developmentally disabled–autistic and mentally retarded–and lives in a group home. Another son had childhood leukemia and died in Zacarias’ arms at age 11. He raised a teenage daughter as a single parent.
He came to education with the perspective of two previous careers.
After college, he traveled to Mexico to work in his family’s movie business, but recalls being disenchanted with their leanings toward cinema’s lowest common denominator–violence and sex. He returned to the United States, became a billboard advertising salesman and in 1966 made the salary-slashing but gratifying decision to become a substitute teacher.
By coincidence, his first assignment was fifth grade at Breed Street School, the very Eastside campus where he had spent his elementary school years. He later returned to that school as principal.
Former student Susie Rivoli remembers Zacarias as a loving, yet strict, teacher–not hesitating to make a boy put forbidden chewing gum on his nose. Rivoli credits Zacarias with coaxing her to finish high school in her 30s.
“Everybody told me I was too old to go back to school,” said Rivoli, a clerk at an Eastside adult school. “He said, ‘You’re never too old.’ “
It is a philosophy Zacarias is forced to voice often now as questions are raised about his own age. He says his health is fine, though he collapsed in front of the district’s top staff during a fire drill last year. The culprit was a now-healed ulcer caused by bronchitis medication that led him to nearly bleed to death, he said.
Even some of his most loyal backers–who lobbied for Zacarias to become superintendent in 1993 and Los Angeles community college chancellor in 1988–question why he still wants the job.
“It’s a losing situation,” said Julian Nava, the school board’s first Latino member in 1969 and a Cal State Northridge professor. “The captain of the Titanic didn’t know what was coming. Here, you know.”
Zacarias uses a time-worn explanation–he wants to make a difference–but Fernando Guerra, who heads the new Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, offers another plausible factor.
“He’s very symbolic of the Latinos of his generation, who were the first ones to enter many institutions,” Guerra said. “They had to wait for a long time to move up. . . . There’s a lot of pent-up frustration that their generation is going to be skipped, that they are too old by the time there is a need and desire for their leadership.”
The period in Zacarias’ life that he refers to most frequently, almost nostalgically, is 1982-86, when he was regional superintendent for the Eastside schools under a now-defunct management structure. He views the superintendent’s job as an opportunity to expand plans he implemented there, such as a successful effort to identify gifted minority students and a drive to buy the same textbooks across the region, to lessen transferring students’ confusion.
Asked whether that background readied him to radically rearrange a system he helped build, he responded: “Nothing changes. There is nothing new about reform.”
Zacarias’ tenure would be dedicated to continuing the district’s LEARN reform program, he said, but with a close watch on its promise to improve student achievement. He vows to beef up teacher training and favors a back-to-basics curriculum.
“We’ve complicated education too much with all these philosophical issues,” he said. “Joe and Jane Public are saying, ‘Just teach my kids to read and write and keep them safe.’ “
Although he supports bilingual education, his own rapid absorption of English leaves him critical of the average five years or more that Los Angeles Unified students spend in native-language programs. He would like to see that training reduced by half.
As deputy superintendent, Zacarias is most often described as accessible and responsive. Even district outsiders talk about the time he returned their phone call when they despaired of ever breaking through the vast system’s bureaucratic shell.
And once they made contact, supporters and opponents agree, he really listened–a trait some believe would be his greatest strength in perpetuating reforms.
Reform leaders complain that he has not been visible on the reform front, although they acknowledge that may be because Thompson took the lead in that arena. Certainly, one reason for his low profile is the nature of his job. By all accounts, it is nowhere near the second-in-command rank that appears on organizational charts. In fact, many say Thompson rarely meets one on one with Zacarias.
“Some of that is chemistry and some of that is competition–in this district, the deputy has always had to be in the shadow of the superintendent,” said former school board member Leticia Quezada, one of two board members who favored Zacarias over Thompson in 1993.