Richard Vladovic celebrates 50 years in education, sees much yet to be accomplished
Mike Szymanski | January 12, 2017
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Richard Vladovic remembers the days when he was juggling his military career with teaching.
“I would leave on Friday after staying to watch a school football game, jump on a plane and go to Fort Lewis, Washington, and do maneuvers in a Jeep all weekend and then come back to school by 7 in the morning on Monday and be completely exhausted,” Vladovic recalled. “A couple of times I would come to school in my Army uniform because I didn’t have time to change.”
Eventually, his deployments grew longer and he had to choose between education and the military. He retired after decades with the U.S. Army Reserves at the rank of Infantry Major.
He has yet to retire from education, though, and this month marks half a century of Vladovic’s work in education, mostly at the LA Unified School District.
“I started student teaching at Banning (High School), and I realized I loved teaching,” Vladovic said. “I guess I haven’t stopped.”
• Read more: Dr. V’s prescription for a healthy school district
At 71, Vladovic isn’t quite the elder statesman of the seven-member school board (George McKenna is five years older), and he isn’t the longest serving (Mónica García beats him by a year). And there’s probably a good debate about which member is the biggest curmudgeon on the board right now, although he’s in the running. (He loves that the LA Weekly once dubbed him a “Grumpy Old Man” of LA Unified, and he has a framed caricature of himself that went with the article hanging in his office.)
But after being elected twice and serving 10 years on the board, Vladovic will be termed-out in 2020, and by then he said he hopes he will see some major changes needed in the district. Board terms had been five years, but in a recent compromise the positions became subject to term limits and the members were allowed to serve out their terms.
“A lot more needs to be done, and I don’t know if it all can be done before I leave,” said Vladovic in a rare and extensive interview with LA School Report. “I don’t know if the district as we know it will be around in three years.”
Vladovic has many times sounded the alarm warning the district of potential pitfalls, but he insists he’s not a doomsayer because he tries to offer hope and solutions. He has championed radical ideas such as breaking up the nation’s second-largest school district into smaller ones, turning the entire district into a charter school district and promoting Public School Choice, which allowed families easier access to better schools whether they are district magnet schools or independent charters.
“I am continually frustrated that the district is not moving fast enough, and that’s something that has frustrated me throughout my educational career,” Vladovic said. “I have hope, though.”
Vladovic served twice as president of the school board and is still involved in labor negotiations between the district and the unions during contract disputes. He received endorsements from both charter groups and unions because he is seen as being fair to both sides.
“Vladovic has said that as a poor kid growing up in San Pedro, education saved his life,” said UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl. “That belief has informed his decades-long commitment to public education as an essential institution, deserving of respect and protection from forces that would privatize our schools.”
Sarah Angel, managing director of regional advocacy for the California Charter Schools Association, said, “Dr. Vladovic has long been an independent voice of fairness and experience who deeply cares about students and families across this district. His non-ideological approach has earned him the respect of many, including the Los Angeles charter community.”
Angel added that “Dr. Vladovic’s support for Public School Choice, the groundbreaking policy adopted by the board of education in 2009 that has provided thousands of LA families with more high-quality school options in new school buildings, is just one example of his willingness to embrace creative, outside-the-box approaches that address urgent student needs.”
Vladovic’s District 7 has the most schools and the most children, about 99,000 students, with the cities of Lomita, Gardena and Carson within the district. It stretches from downtown all the way south to San Pedro, where Vladovic grew up. He and wife Kathy raised two children who are now grown and have both taught in LA Unified.
Few board members have worked more closely with Vladovic than Steve Zimmer, who was elected president for the past two years and previously served as vice president under Vladovic.
“Very few people have seen the influence of Richard Vladovic in the ways that I have,” Zimmer said. “Believe me when I say this district survived the financial collapse in large part because of the hard work and amazing navigational skills of Dr. V. I have learned from him as a leader and as an educator. The wisdom he brings and the experience he lends is simply irreplaceable.”
Zimmer said Vladovic’s influence is lasting on the district. “The breadth of his influence and his contributions toward positive change for children over the last 50 years is the stuff of legend,” Zimmer said. “Everywhere I go with Dr. V, teachers, parents and administrators stop him, remember him as a teacher, principal or professor and thank him for changing their lives. I am honored to serve with Dr. V.”
He earned his nickname “Dr. V” after receiving his doctorate in education from USC in 1980. Vladovic started teaching social studies at LA Unified’s Stephen White Junior High School in Carson and then became the region’s gifted advisor. Over the years, he served as principal in schools facing academic challenges such as Angel’s Gate Continuation High, Locke High and Gompers Middle schools.
He helped form what was to become a model for small learning communities at the Narbonne/San Pedro cluster and helped develop a new Emergency Credential and Special Education Teacher Training Academy.
“I think small learning communities are good school models, but not on the same campus, that creates confusion,” Vladovic said. “There should be one leader.”
Vladovic is particularly frustrated about schools that he once helped, such as Gompers Middle where he served as an assistant principal in the 1980s, remaining on the list of failing schools. Gompers was recently named among the state’s lowest-performing schools, eligible for a School Improvement Grant.
“I have seen the same schools on the list year after year, some for 25 years, and the day of accepting this is over,” Vladovic said. “We can’t be tolerant of persistent failure. I’ve been so impatient with education because I know what can be done if we do it right.”
He visited Gompers and other schools, including some independent charters, in his district that are on the list of low-performing schools to review their plans for improvement. “If you are a charter school on this list, you are not meeting your original purpose, you’re supposed to be the innovative ones. I think together we should do something with all of them, whether it’s reconstitution, or closing a charter, or doing something dramatically different at our schools. I think they’re all on the table.”
Vladovic said that as long as parents choose charter schools over traditional district schools there will continue to be a gap in education because enrollment will keep falling. He said there is a way to make district schools better with innovative programs, but it may be too little too late.
“I think the changes are coming faster than anyone else thinks and there will be a point where we can’t do anything because we don’t have the students,” Vladovic said.
When he was a regional superintendent under Ramon Cortines in 2000, Vladovic oversaw nearly one-third of the students and said he gave the principals of his 180 schools a great deal of autonomy to improve their schools. He was seeing some improvements, but then-Superintendent Roy Romer came in and re-centralized the district. “That was one of the reasons I left,” Vladovic said.
Vladovic was named superintendent of the West Covina Unified School District in 2003, reporting to a five-member elected board. He ran 13 schools of 11,000 students with a budget of $70 million.
“At West Covina, the major high school there went from an underperforming school to a California Distinguished School in three years,” Vladovic said. “We grew the highest of any of the 81 districts in LA County. What I did is empower the principals. I said, ‘If you stumble, I will support you.’”
Vladovic said that LA Unified’s principals have too many bosses. “If we train them properly from the beginning and give them the autonomy they need, it can make all the difference.”
For example, Vladovic explained, if a principal has some extra money because an aide resigned during winter break, then it takes a laborious series of paperwork and meetings and approvals for the principal to re-designate that money. “If the principal wants to use that for a new math program, then let the principal do that,” he said. “A larger district like ours tends to restrict the freedom of a principal.”
Always data-driven in his decisions, Vladovic received a state commendation while at the district for effective monitoring and redesignating English language learners. He also created a reading program and Career to Work program for at-risk students that has been replicated throughout the district.
He started a “Classified Recognition” program to recognize valuable employees and privately raises about $30,000 for an annual “Heroes of Education” banquet honoring teachers and principals in the district.
“When I was a superintendent, I had to make sure that everyone else also believed that we could change the problems, and then do something about it and sustain what we did to keep it going,” he said. “For example, if we are going to decrease the time that a student is known to be an English learner, then we must support them once they are redesignated.”
Vladovic continues to push for community college classes and credits being offered in high school and said that kind of access will encourage more college-bound students.
“It’s time to think bold, and I’m not running again, so I can get the heat for some of these bold ideas,” he said. “But it takes four of us to make policy.”
Vladovic continued to teach “Curriculum and Instruction” and “Philosophy of Education” classes at universities including Cal State LA, Cal Poly Pomona, Cal State Dominguez Hills, Cal Lutheran and Mount St. Mary’s. He gave up those courses while on the school board, but plans to go back to teaching classes again after his term ends. Earl Perkins, now an associate superintendent, is one of his past students.
Although he has an office in Gardena, even Cortines used to joke that Vladovic’s office was usually a certain Starbucks in San Pedro.
“Yes, I have met there with all the union leaders, and Michelle King, it’s a convenient place,” laughed Vladovic.
“It’s frustrating because I’ve been in education now for 50 years and I still see failing schools,” Vladovic sighed. “It tells you that nobody is listening.”
But he does see some change, even slowly.
At one point when Zimmer first took over the school board as president, Vladovic complained regularly about the long board meetings lasting far past 8 p.m.
“I have to go home to feed my dog,” Vladovic said, referring to his rescue dog Effie.
Zimmer now divides the board meeting into sections, which has streamlined the meeting length somewhat.
“It’s improving,” Vladovic smiled. “Slowly.”