The new superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, Michelle King, spent 31 years working her way up through the district but has stayed largely out of the spotlight. Now she’s stepping up as the public face to steer the district through its big challenges, including declining enrollment and big budget problems.
King spoke to KPCC about her first few days on the job, her priorities going forward, and her strategies for attracting and keeping families to the district's schools.
Here we are the end of your first week as L.A. Unified superintendent, walk we through the highlights? What did you do?
Each and every day, I started my day in schools visiting teachers, students, classified staff, seeing what they were doing, introducing myself and [giving them] the opportunity to see me, and for me to see incredible things happening on our campuses.
You have so much experience in this district and one advantage many have said that gives you is that you can really hit the ground running. What are the specific things that you want to accomplish in your first year as superintendent?
One is graduation, and making sure every student graduates, and that is one of my overarching, top priorities. Even today, I was with a group of administrators at Dorsey High School, sitting around a table talking to them about how we’re going to ensure each and every student is going to walk across that stage graduating A through G, college-prepared and career ready.
[Secondly,] balancing our budget is a huge priority for me. I was just in a budget meeting today working with teams and working with staff, around ensuring that we’re able to reach a three year balanced budget and that’s a heavy lift for us.
And then thirdly – really important — is the engagement piece, engaging families and school communities. One of the things that’s troubled me over the years is that there’s been a waning of the public trust in L.A. Unified. I will hit the ground with a campaign that’ll be called "Listen, Learn, and Activate," where I’m able to go out into the community, to community meetings, schools, etc. hear what’s going on, hear what the people, the stakeholders feel is important to them, learn – really learn deeply — and make something happen.
How much more can you raise the graduation rate? How much can you close the deficit that’s expected? How many more parents can you get engaged?
For my engagement effort, we’re looking at – between now and April – really trying to target approximately 10,000 folks in terms of that type of engagement. And that doesn’t include going to the schools that I’ve shared with you, visiting with those communities as well. We’ll set metrics to be able to meet that.
I have a plan of working with the board, we’ll go through a strategic planning process, we will lay out what the goals will be, set metrics and targets to be able to do that.
My team, local district superintendents and principals are on board to close this graduation gap that we have and to move more students to graduation. We want 100 percent graduation, but we will have incremental movement with that and I believe we can achieve it.
The budget is about aligning priorities. To balance it, there are some things that we are doing now that we won’t be able to continue doing. We’re really going to have to come together and focus on what’s important for us as a district then align our resources to make that happen. And then some other things that may be good we’re just not going to be able to do them at this time because they’re not aligned to mission critical at this point.
You were chief deputy superintendent at a time when the district went through a number of controversies and missteps, including an effort to get iPads to every student and the rollout of the MiSis data system. What was your involvement in those initiatives?
The way we were organized is, senior leadership had what we call direct reports and those divisions did not report to me.
However, I was aware of what was going on in both of those. Certainly a lesson learned is that we can’t do what I want to call, the big bang – just start everything at once in this district. It’s important to pilot, phase, test out something before it’s rolled out to scale.
You’ve been praised for your ability to bring diverse groups of stakeholders together, and that’s one of the reasons school board members say they hired you. But those different groups – I’m thinking of charter advocates, arts education advocates, labor unions - are often competing for limited resources -- we saw that this week with the charter association’s lawsuit over facilities funding. What will your approach be to bringing those groups together?
My strategy is to certainly meet with these different stakeholder groups, reach out to them individually and also in some instances in group form.
I have had success in the past in working with all my labor partners, various groups, and so I believe going forward I will be able to accomplish the same using the strategies that have worked for me in the past.
The approach to improvement you’ve articulated so far seems to be, “slow and steady wins the race.” But you'll be facing what some education researchers have called “an existential threat” from a plan to draw as many as half of L.A. Unified students to new charter schools. The premise of that plan is that families need dramatic change in their school options now. How do you plan to convince families that they should not abandon the district for charter schools and instead stick through progress that might come at a slower rate?
I will ask families to stay with us, [and show them] that we’re here to work for them. I want to see us offer programs and involve parents to [find out] what will work for them...
So it’s important for me to find out from parents what are they looking for. Are there particular programs they want to see offered that we are not offering that they are finding somewhere else? We want to know about that.