School & District Management

L.A. Offices Try To Banish The Bureaucracy

By Robert C. Johnston — March 07, 2001 3 min read
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Dale W. Vigil has had an opportunity that few school administrators can even imagine.

As one of 11 new “local district” superintendents in the vast school system here, Mr. Vigil is building a central-office operation from the ground up. He has handpicked most of his 100-plus staff members and is eagerly waiting to move from downtown to the former supermarket that is being renovated as his District J headquarters.

Along with the opportunity to set up shop near the schools he oversees, however, come huge challenges. His 62,000 students live in the southeast fringes of the Los Angeles Unified School District and attend some of its most crowded and lowest-performing schools.

But his strategy for success is clear: Get the right people to focus on the right job. And so far, he’s had the leeway to do that. Recalling the interviews for his key staff members, Mr. Vigil said that “if I didn’t get depth in their understanding of teaching and instruction, they were not hired for District J.”

His search for the right people didn’t stop at the management level. Mr. Vigil even hired a parking lot attendant away from District J’s temporary downtown digs. Thanks to the young man’s winning demeanor and work ethic, he will be trained to operate video equipment for the district.

“Chemistry is important,” Mr. Vigil said. “Without it, things don’t work.”

Even secretaries have received training in customer service. “Just because you’re behind the desk, it doesn’t mean you’re in charge,” Mr. Vigil pointed out.

District J is part of an all- out effort by the 723,000-student Los Angeles school system, the nation’s second largest, to decentralize a downtown operation that, in the eyes of many, was bureaucracy-driven and unresponsive to schools.

Under the new structure, 11 local districts with between 60,000 and 80,000 students each are expected to improve support to schools for instruction, maintenance, and other operations.

On paper, at least, the reorganization promises to be a big improvement. Previously, 23 “cluster leaders” were dispersed throughout the sprawling metropolis to provide instructional leadership to schools. The problem was that their staffs of three to five people were too small to get much done.

But Katherine Swank, who directed the district’s charter school program until last year, is worried that old bureaucratic ways will be perpetuated by “the same people in different offices.”

Ms. Swank, who is now the principal of the Bell-Cudahy Primary Center, left the district because of “frustration over people who didn’t know what was going on in the field and who didn’t want to know.”

New Expectations

Still, she agrees with other principals in District J that dramatic changes are under way.

Juliana Dawson, a 33-year veteran of the district and the principal of Montara Street Elementary School, complained that “we never seem to settle down” as a district.

But she finds her new area superintendent’s focus on instruction to be relentless: “I’ve seen no variation from him. I’ve never worked for someone like that before, and it can’t help but improve student achievement.”

The effort goes beyond words.

Rita Davis, one of three school services directors in District J, said that because her office will be in the community, she will visit each of the 15 schools she works with at least once a month to determine the support it needs.

The visits are paying off. After Ms. Davis was told by one school’s principal that all students kept journals, the District J official’s classroom visits to review writing instruction turned up three teachers who were not requiring the daily writing exercise.

Even worse, in her mind, were the teachers’ explanations: They felt the students weren’t ready for the work. The revelation led to a training session for the teachers, whose students now write daily.

In the past, Ms. Davis added, district staff members might simply have been sent to the best classrooms, or would have taken the principal’s word on the journals. “Here in Los Angeles, we talk about movie people and perfecting their craft,” she said. “But we also want teachers to take pride in performing their craft.”

Mr. Vigil expects principals to play a bigger part by spending two hours a day in classrooms. While his expectations of schools are high, they are no less so for his own office.

“This isn’t just going to be a mini-downtown,” he vowed.

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as L.A. Offices Try To Banish The Bureaucracy

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