Schools Chief Pick Sees Enemy in 'Anonymity'
Pr. George's Choice Split Up Large School

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:

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

· Students taking classes that give them a greater chance of going to college, with many in high school pushed to take Advanced Placement courses.

· Administrators aggressively monitoring instruction and teacher development, through weekly faculty conferences and inspections of classrooms.

Little or none of this would be new to the Washington area. But Deasy hopes a zealous, systematic application of such strategies can help him lift Prince George's to a higher level.

Maria Rodriguez, a Samohi parent, said she was skeptical of Deasy's gung-ho talk at first. But he won her over. "He just kept saying every student can learn and will learn," Rodriguez said. "He really shifted the conversation and the agenda."

While visiting McKinley Elementary, Deasy knelt to quiz third-graders in one classroom about reading and writing. He asked a girl named Wendy to tell him about a chart on the wall showing a curve.

"It's a story mountain," Wendy replied. "In the middle, the high point, it means something is going wrong. And when you go down, the problem is solved." Another girl named Imanni told him: "It helps us write stories. You make a problem, and at the end you have to solve it."

Deasy said: "Thanks for taking the time to explain that to me. I really appreciate it. Gotta go. High five." Imanni slapped his palm.

Their classroom was of particular interest on this day. Two teachers were observing and filming a third teacher who was giving a lesson on how to read a textbook. Afterward, a substitute took over so the three could compare notes. Teacher Lindsay Light-Kananack said it was invaluable to watch others work with the same material.

"It's the most important thing," she said. "To see classroom management, what's on the walls, how they use their time, how they interact with kids. We have a luxury of testing out these strategies, making the lessons better. That's how change should occur in schools."

McKinley Elementary, a 400-student school with red-tile roofs and archways in the Spanish Mission style, lies behind a bougainvillea-draped fence on Santa Monica Boulevard. Here, about half the students qualify for meal subsidies. Nearly 40 percent are Latino, 10 percent are black and 8 percent are Asian. Reading and mathematics test scores exceed state standards, with Latino students having made especially large gains.

Every Wednesday, school lets out early so teachers get 90 extra minutes for professional development or other class preparation. Deasy won agreement for the once-a-week variable school day in a teachers contract. Classes run longer on the other days to make up the time.

At Samohi, on 33 sun-drenched acres between Pico Boulevard and the Santa Monica Freeway, Deasy lugged a concert bass into a music room. His son, a senior, had played it in a weekend performance. His youngest daughter is a sophomore at the school.

Like others in the Los Angeles area, the campus has witnessed recent racial tensions, often between Latino and black students. Sometimes fights break out. Anti-black graffiti roiled the school three weeks ago. In response, teachers posted fliers that assert: "Hate is not my value."

CEO Ilene Straus said the school's reorganization has helped administrators stay in touch with students before frictions ignite on a wide scale. "Our challenge is, can you get small enough to know kids and build connections?" Straus said.

Each house is home to about 550 students and two dozen teachers. Students stay within their houses for most ninth- and 10th-grade classes but take honors and AP classes across the campus in their final two years.

The school ranks among the top 200 in the nation in AP participation, and Latino and black students are taking the college-level courses and tests in greater numbers, officials said.

Math teacher Geoff Tipper said 90 of his 110 AP statistics students last year took the test, with more than half passing. "I can do everything but force them to take it," he said. "Almost all of them will."

Prince George's has raised participation in recent years, but in general AP has not been one of the system's highest priorities. That may change under Deasy.

The county also has several high schools with 2,000 to 3,000 students, some of which are struggling academically.

Here, the Samohi reorganization dispersed faculty departments that previously were consolidated in various wings. Some teachers say that they have less contact with department colleagues.

But Tipper said he is now in closer touch with teachers from other disciplines. He said they talk frequently about problems facing specific students. He also has a clear and close point of contact with the administration -- his house principal. Before, he said, navigating the administration was bewildering. "I honestly didn't know who to go to with my questions," Tipper said.

Some students said the new arrangement gives them a sense of home within their home.

"When I first got here, it was humongous. I was intimidated," said Sharona Daneshrad, a senior who is a student government leader. "Now it's a much more personal and intimate environment."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company