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How Superintendent David Brewer Ran Aground 

The admiral's sinking ship

Wednesday, Dec 26 2007
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After five months of political battles with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his allies in Sacramento, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent David L. Brewer III needed to find his focus. The retired Navy vice admiral was still a newcomer to the nation’s second-largest public-schools system, and he was utterly inexperienced as a public educator. So, in April 2007, Brewer made a promising and low-key move.

 

 

click to flip through (2) (Photo by Ted Soqui)
  • (Photo by Ted Soqui)
 
 

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(Photo by Ted Soqui) (Click to enlarge)

 

Old school: Longtime board member Julie Korenstein was initially thrilled about Brewer. No more. (Photo by Orly Olivier) (Click to enlarge)

Quietly billed as a “superintendents’ weekend retreat,” the L.A. Weekly has learned, an invite from Brewer asked three noted educators to talk shop with him at the West Los Angeles campus of Loyola Marymount University, a short drive from his home in Playa del Rey.

Brewer’s guests were no slouches. Rudy Crew launched a major turnaround in New York City as the public-schools chancellor and later became the superintendent of Miami–Dade County Public Schools, one of five nationwide finalists for the Broad Prize for Urban Education. Among the country’s most prestigious awards, the Broad Prize is given to urban districts whose schools reflect the best overall performance and improvement in student achievement, while reducing stubborn achievement gaps among poor and minority students. It includes a hefty $1 million in college scholarships.

The two other highly regarded educators were Garden Grove Unified School District Superintendent Laura Schwalm, whose much-improved, racially mixed schools won the Broad Prize in 2004, and former San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, an outspoken black reformer who stared down that city’s old guard, earning her district a Broad finalist nod in 2005. Now, Ackerman is Christian A. Johnson Professor of Outstanding Educational Practice at Columbia University and superintendent-in-residence at the Broad Superintendents Academy in L.A.

All in all, Brewer was meeting with some of the best and most experienced minds in the country — no-nonsense reformers with a track record of turning around public schools.

On the first day of the retreat, Brewer met his guests in an empty classroom at 8:30 in the morning. “We wanted to hear out David,” Crew tells the Weekly, “and understand where he was thinking about things.”

According to Crew, Brewer arrived at the meeting “eager to take on the challenge” of improving L.A. Unified and “very interested in the nature of the work.” But Crew also noticed that he was “very much overwhelmed, in some ways, by the things going on around him.”

A newbie coping with the remnants of an unsuccessful mayoral takeover, Brewer was falling behind in important ways: He had failed to fill key positions on his senior management team, and to fully develop a coherent academic vision for a district with 878 schools and 694,288 students. And he was earning nasty headlines over the disastrous new computerized payroll system, Business Tools for Schools, which went sideways as thousands of the district’s 45,473 teachers received inaccurate paychecks — some getting under- or overpaid for months.

As the meeting unfolded, the four educators shared their priorities. For the seasoned turnaround experts, it was all about the students. Crew, who is also black, told Brewer to focus on low-performing schools as soon as he could. “It was true for me in New York and Miami as well,” Crew says of his own experiences.

Ackerman recalls how she stressed raising student achievement, addressing inequities between high- and low-performing students and creating accountability among teachers and bureaucrats.

Yet when it was Brewer’s turn to lay out his priorities, he went off in a completely different direction that left the übersupes uneasy: Working with politicians in Sacramento and Los Angeles, he told them, was his major focus.

“We see it in a different context,” says Ackerman. “The core business is improving achievement for students. Then everything else supports that. Without that clarity, it’s a struggle. But if you put kids at the center of everything, things will always get better.”

On the last day of the retreat, Crew, Schwalm and Ackerman handed Brewer a list of priorities, with heavy emphasis on achievement in the classroom rather than at City Hall. “There’s a tremendous need, certainly in the first year, to create and sustain a vision and to make it tangible,” says Crew, adding that speechmaking needed to be ditched at some point for day-to-day work.

The educators suggested that Brewer quickly hire senior staff, create an overall strategic plan, engage parents, address problems with low-performing schools, and shape a detailed accountability plan for teachers and bureaucrats.

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