The Los Angeles Board of Education on Monday named Deputy Supt. Michelle King as superintendent, ending a high-stakes search to fill a challenging and hard-to-fill job at a seminal time in California’s largest school system.
King, 54, was considered a reliable choice because she came up through the system. But some district observers voiced surpise at her selection after the board sent a prominent head-hunting firm on a months-long nationwide quest to recruit potential leaders, including those outside the field of education.
King, formerly a respected high school principal, has cultivated a low profile as a senior administrator, keeping her views on where she would like to take Los Angeles Unified a mystery, as is protocol for leaders within the $7-billion bureaucracy.
But board members said that she impressed them in their long interviews behind closed doors. They said they appreciated her knowledge of L.A. Unified, which, they concluded, would allow her to tackle the school system’s problems without delay.
The board’s decision comes at the end of a five-month process spurred by the departure of Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, whose retirement took effect Jan. 2.
In recent years the district has suffered from inconsistent direction as political factions have battled for control in the nation’s most costly school board elections. These power shifts have contributed to turnover — eight superintendents over the last 20 years — and have made deft political skills an essential quality for the schools chief.
“The district needs a strong diplomat but also someone who will burrow into the classroom and regain the momentum on student achievement,” said Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley.
The new leader will need to confront lagging student achievement and declining enrollment. Even without political turmoil, the job is complex. L.A. Unified draws students from 28 cities and unincorporated areas, including wealthy and low-income neighborhoods. Nearly three in four students are Latino; most are from low-income families; students come from homes that speak more than 90 native languages and many are learning to speak English.
Carlton (PhD ’87) and Eloise (BA ’64) Blanton (Photo/Kathy Christie)
Eloise and Carlton Blanton love to share memories – with many details and specifics –of the principals and school leaders that mentored them throughout their two extraordinary careers as educators. She recalls Joe Bethel, principal at Loma Vista, who told her to “speak up!” She speaks lovingly of Carrie Haynes, then in the LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) regional office, who encouraged her to pursue a principalship. Carlton remembers his basketball coach at Cal State Los Angeles, Saxson C. Elliott, who later became a department chair and gave Carlton his first teaching job at Cal State LA.
In many ways, those memories led them to give a gift which will prepare a new generation of school leaders to be just as impactful.
The Dr. Carlton and Eloise Blanton Endowed Scholarship at USC Rossier School of Education will specifically support students who aspire to be school principals. The Blanton’s generous gift of $160,000 to USC Rossier will support the studies of students who, as the Blantons put it, “have resiliency, bounce back from adversity, are good listeners, and are highly motivated.” The Blantons care deeply about supporting those students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford a USC education. “We have always wanted to do this,” they say.
Because for these two – who refer to one another as “my best friend” – their lives together and as educators were greatly shaped by USC. Eloise Blanton is a hometown girl, whose father owned property in USC’s neighborhood. Carlton is Texas born and raised, and for the key high school years, he pretty much raised himself. He moved with his parents to Southern California in 9th grade but, not feeling challenged in his new school, convinced them he could go back to Texas alone. From the age of 14, he lived on his own in the house they had left behind and went to school, graduating #2 in his high school class at age 16.
Submerged underwater, a robot built out of PVC pipes snaked back and forth near some foam “sea sponges.” Next to the small wading pool, 11-year-old Nailah Lewis intently worked a set of controls on top of a wired plastic box. Her electrical engineering experiment had entered its final testing phase. The task: Design a tool to pick up objects underwater. Around the pool, a group of young girls leaned over the edge, dangling their hands in the water and shouting encouragement. Nailah’s 8-year-old sister, Ayailah, called out: “Come on, Ni Ni!”
Watching proudly nearby with a camera in hand was Nailah’s mother, Dana Lewis, 39, who is determined to see her both young daughters go to college. She found a positive motivating force in a new Cal State Long Beach program. The program, “Engineering Girls — It Takes a Village,” is unusual in its focus on recruiting young girls, ages 9 to 15, from displaced families. Over the last four months, school officials worked with the Century Villages at Cabrillo, a transitional housing community, to recruit girls and bring them to the university in August for one week of engineering workshops.
Officials said that the program, which began Aug. 5 and ended Sunday, was specifically designed for girls because the engineering field is dominated by men. But coordinators also aimed to expose an underrepresented community with limited opportunities in science, math and engineering. It came along with a full taste of college life, with the girls sleeping in the dorms and eating three all-you-can-eat meals a day.
Of the 29 girls who participated, 25 came from homeless families. All were African American, and most lived in single-parent homes. Three were being raised by their grandparents. “A lot of these girls are underprivileged, so an experience like this not only changes and impacts their lives, but re-creates their future,” said Lewis, who was one of several women who accompanied their daughters and participated in the program. Lewis moved into the Villages with her mother and two daughters when it opened five years ago.