School & District Management

L.A. Offices Try To Banish The Bureaucracy

By Robert C. Johnston — March 07, 2001 3 min read

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

Events

Jobs The EdWeek Top School Jobs Virtual Career Fair
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How to Power Your Curriculum With Digital Books
Register for this can’t miss session looking at best practices for utilizing digital books to support their curriculum.
Content provided by OverDrive
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Embracing Student Engagement: The Pathway to Post-Pandemic Learning
As schools emerge from remote learning, educators are understandably worried about content and skills that students would otherwise have learned under normal circumstances. This raises the very real possibility that children will face endless hours
Content provided by Newsela

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion Are Your Leadership Practices Good Enough for Racial Justice?
Scratch being a hero. Instead, build trust and reach beyond school walls, write Jennifer Cheatham and John B. Diamond.
Jennifer Cheatham & John B. Diamond
5 min read
Illustration of leadership.
Collage by Laura Baker/Education Week (Images: DigitalVision Vectors, iStock, Getty)
School & District Management We Pay Superintendents Big Bucks and Expect Them to Succeed. But We Hardly Know Them
National data is skimpy, making it hard to know what influences superintendents' decisions to move on, retire, or how long they stay. Why?
8 min read
Conceptual image of tracking with data.
marcoventuriniautieri/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Data For the First Time in the Pandemic, a Majority of 4th Graders Learn in Person Full Time
The latest monthly federal data still show big racial and socioeconomic differences in who has access to full-time in-person instruction.
3 min read
Student with backpack.
surasaki/iStock/Getty
School & District Management From Our Research Center To Offer Remote Learning in the Fall or Not? Schools Are Split
An EdWeek Research Center survey shows that nearly 4 of every 10 educators say their schools will not offer any remote instruction options.
4 min read
Image of a teacher working with a student through a screen session.
Ridofranz/iStock/Getty