Schools Chief Pick Sees Enemy in 'Anonymity'

John Deasy, who was tapped to lead the Prince George's school system, at McKinley Elementary School in California.
John Deasy, who was tapped to lead the Prince George's school system, at McKinley Elementary School in California. (Photos By Stephanie Diani For The Washington Post)

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By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2006

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- With 3,300 students on a campus overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Santa Monica High dwarfs other schools nearby. Many students find broad opportunity in such academic behemoths. But some lose their way.

So officials broke up the school known here as Samohi. In 2003, faculty and students were divided into six equal units, each identified with a letter from the school's nickname: "S House," "A House," "M House" and so on. Then the school was reassembled. Same campus, same faculty, same students -- all led by six new "house principals" with authority to discipline students and evaluate teachers. Above them was a "chief educational officer," or CEO, for the whole school.

The shakeup shows how prospective Prince George's County schools chief John E. Deasy approaches some of the big challenges at big high schools. He seeks to nurture intimacy.

Students should feel like "someone knows me on that campus," Deasy said. Teachers and administrators should know each other and their students equally well. "Anonymity," Deasy said, "is really an enemy of the improvement of all things."

Deasy, superintendent of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District since 2001, was chosen last week to become the next Prince George's schools chief. Today, three county school board members are scheduled to meet with him and others here in a final review as the board prepares to offer the 45-year-old educator a contract.

In many ways, Deasy's experience here contrasts with what he will face when he moves east. This school district is one-tenth as large as the 133,000-student Prince George's system. State data show it has about 12,500 students through grade 12, lower than a 14,000-student figure Deasy had given The Washington Post. Deasy's initial total included about 1,500 students in adult programs.

His district is majority white, with state data showing 27 percent Latino students and 8 percent black students. The student body in Prince George's is three-quarters black with a fast-growing Latino minority.

Santa Monica and Malibu have more concentrated wealth than the county and far less extensive poverty. The percentage of students here who qualify for federal meal subsidies -- about one-fifth -- is less than half the percentage in Prince George's.

Overseeing schools that are nearly filled with disadvantaged students and running a system that serves tens of thousands of them are "extremely different challenges than anything he would have faced in Santa Monica," said Stanford University education professor Michael Kirst.

Kirst said Deasy has a zest for politics and is "bubbling with ideas and energy." But the analyst added: "Scaling up their ideas to 133,000 pupils -- that's where educators have struggled."

Overall, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified has narrowed achievement gaps over the past four years. But here, as in Prince George's, black and Latino students still lag Asian and white students significantly in state test scores. A tour this week of Samohi and McKinley Elementary, a small school with a sizeable bloc of disadvantaged students, showed these Deasy initiatives in motion:

ยท Teachers honing lesson plans with other teachers during and between classes, some using video cameras to document what works and what doesn't.


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