When the Los Angeles Unified board named longtime employee Michelle King the district’s newest superintendent Monday, board members cited her three decades of service to the school system -- years in which she worked mostly out of the spotlight, but built strong ties through her personal touch.
"She has an ability to build tremendous good will with the people she works with," said teacher Robert Coad, who worked with King at Hamilton High School on the Westside. She held leadership positions there for eight years.
On Tuesday, the day after King's appointment as new superintendent, Hamilton High staff was elated.
"Everybody has this sense that she cares about them," said Fran Rose, Hamilton's humanities magnet coordinator. He said King connected not just with teachers and other staff, but with parents and other stakeholders.
It's no small feat for a former principal to be so fondly remembered.
"It was always like no problem was too small," explained Marlene Zuccaro, director of Hamilton's academy of music and performing arts.
Librarian Rosemarie Bernier remembers like it was yesterday the day in 1997 she got her national board certification. King was her supervisor.
"I went in to tell her and show her my certificate," Bernier said, tearing up at the memory. "You know what she did? She grabbed my hands and we jumped up and down together because she was thrilled for me and she was thrilled for the kids."
During her acceptance speech Monday, King gave little policy detail, speaking mainly in generalities.
She said her goals are to increase parent engagement, improve access and equity for all students to a quality education, and better prepare students for college. She also pledged fiscal restraint, saying she will devise a budget strategy to support her aims.
She did make it clear that she intends to retain her personal touch as she takes on the district's top job.
"It is only by working as a team and a family that we can help our students achieve and thrive," King said.
LAUSD board president Steve Zimmer said in her interviews, King demonstrated a level of connection with the school district's work that went above and beyond what she was normally able to show in her job as an administrator.
Speaking on KPCC's Take Two on Tuesday morning, Zimmer said she had a passion for two major initiatives that the district has already begun to put in place: a major push to better prepare students for college and career and a slate of reforms to make school discipline policies more equitable and effective.
"What we had seen with Ms. King in the past is really the implementation side and we had not really seen her passion for these initiatives in the ways that she was able to talk about them through the interview process and the selection process," Zimmer said.
Before her appointment to the top job, King was the chief deputy superintendent of schools. She’s also held other senior administrative jobs during a number of tumultuous years in the district. In these jobs she focused on executing other people’s visions.
Now, the school board has tasked King to turning her passion into tangible results that the district has long-struggled to achieve. They include dramatically improving academic performance and convincing parents to keep their kids enrolled in traditional public schools.Given the huge fiscal deficit the district faces in the coming years, King will be unable to please everyone. And a number of outside observers had hoped the board would pick an outsider who could bring new ideas to the struggling district.
But UCLA education professor Pedro Noguera said her insider knowledge could give her an advantage.
"It’s a big unwieldy system," he said, "so hopefully that means she won’t take a long time to get up to speed like a newcomer would."
As she takes the reins of this behemoth school district, Coad, the Hamilton High teacher, said King's move is not unlike when, in 2002, she was named principal after having spent five years as assistant principal.
"When she moved up to be principal, it was just a real relief," he said. Before she took over, the school – not unlike the district now -- was going through a volatile time. Lots of tension was brewing between the three programs that share the campus, teachers said.
"There’s a reassurance when somebody really competent in-house is promoted rather than somebody from outside who needs that time to acclimate or understand the school," he said.
King’s task now is to multiply her legacy at Hamilton to the district’s 900 schools and more than 640,000 students.
Rose, the humanities coordinator at Hamilton, said he thinks King is up for the job.
"After the upheaval, she was the calming influence and I think really turned things round at this school," Rose said. "And I’m hoping she does the same thing with the district."