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From Deasy: RFK, apartheid, Chavez and an Oprah moment

Vanessa Romo | August 5, 2014

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John Deasy at state address LAUSDIn his annual State of the Schools address, LA Unified Superintendent John Deasy today called to mind Robert F. Kennedy, apartheid in South Africa, Cesar Chavez and national immigration reform. He even hammered home this year’s theme, “My Brother’s and Sister’s Keeper,” with an Oprah-like moment.

Deasy instructed every LA Unified employee in the audience — about 1,500 principals, assistant principals and district administrators — to reach under their chairs and pluck an envelope taped to the bottom of the seat.

“Take the envelope and hold it in your hand for a minute,” he told the giddy crowd at Garfield High School in east LA. But rather than a set of keys to a brand new “caaaaaaar” that Oprah might have delivered, each Deasy envelope contained the name of a student.

“[It] is the name of a youth in LAUSD who is going to come back to us a week from today, and they need you — exactly you,” he said, challenging members of the audience to “find that youth, stay with her or him until graduation.”

Only with this degree of one-to-one commitment, he said, can the district hope to achieve a 100 percent graduation rate.

“We are absolutely our brother’s and our sister’s keeper,” he said. “It’s in your hands and I profoundly thank you for what you do every day, what you are going to do, and how you’re going to lift that individual along with everybody else to be part of this amazing thing called the American Dream.”

After the speech, Alfonso Paz, director of Apex Academy High School in Hollywood, told LA School Report, Deasy’s words were a good reminder of the broad spectrum of responsibilities LAUSD educators must shoulder.

“If it wasn’t a slap in the face, then maybe it was a splash of cold water in your face,” Paz said.  “Like, ‘Wake up! You walked into a situation with a lot of kids who are very far behind and a lot of the reasons are their poverty. But lifting someone out of poverty is a multi-step process, so what are you going to do?’ ”

Rory Pullens, the district’s new head of arts instruction and curriculum who moved to Los Angeles from Washington D.C. just a few weeks ago, echoed those sentiments.

“This was a great introduction to LAUSD,” he said. “What moved me the most is that while LAUSD is certainly on the rise in so many critical areas, Deasy laid out the challenges before us. And made it very clear, that we’re going to be a village.”

For some, the speech was also notable for what it left out, any mention of a possible teacher strike.

Scott Folsom, an LAUSD parent leader and blogger and a member of the LA Unified Bond Oversight Committee, who has seen four different superintendents deliver a year-opening address, said Deasy’s speech was light on specifics and direction.

“It’s meant to be a rah-rah speech, and it did do that, but I didn’t hear any really wonderful announcements about anything new,” he told LA School Report. “I agree that poverty is the biggest challenge we have, but LAUSD is not going to solve poverty in Los Angeles all by itself.”

Another objection from several attendees was Deasy’s mention of UTLA as the remaining labor group without a new contract, which Folsom perceived as a jab at the teachers’ union.

“I don’t think that had any place in that venue,” Folsom said. “Principals have nothing to do with negotiations.”

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