After a three-month nationwide search, the LA Unified school board today kept it all in the family, naming Michelle King, a district teacher and administrator for nearly 30 years, to serve as its new superintendent. She succeeds Ramon Cortines whom she served as chief deputy until he stepped down last month.
The 54-year-old King becomes the first black female to ever run LAUSD and the first woman at the helm of the district since 1929.
“What an historic moment this is,” said board president Steve Zimmer in presenting King as the district’s new leader. “She is the daughter of our city, a student and graduate of LA Unified, a teacher from our schools, a principal, a leader of our community.”
King, who began her education career as a student aide at Palisades High in 1978, was chosen by a unanimous vote of the seven-member school board to run the second-largest school district in the country, serving 644,000 students with a budget of $12 billion.
“I want to be a role model for students who look like me,” said King, who right away ticked off a list of things she wants to accomplish, including keeping the district fiscally sound, expanding arts and music, doubling-down on college readiness and increasing parent engagement. Referring to other female black trailblazers, including US Attorney General Loretta Lynch and astronaut Mae Jemison, she added, “I hope to inspire all students to pursue their dreams.”
Her choice from among leading educators and administrators from other districts around the country reflected a strong desire by the board to keep the district in the hands of someone well versed on the challenges facing the district, someone who would not need months of on-the-job learning to become familiar with issues, schools and personnel.
In effect, King would slide easily into the chair occupied by Cortines, who was widely credited for bringing a steady hand to the district in the aftermath of one of its most tumultuous periods, the nearly three years under Deasy. Most recently, King served as the interim superintendent during the weeks between Cortines’s departure, last month, and today.
Although the school board conducted the superintendent search in secret and agreed not to disclose who were among the finalists, speculation focused on Kelvin Adams of the St. Louis’s school district, along with San Francisco superintendent Richard Carranza, former LAUSD administrator Robert Collins, business executive Jim Berk and Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, among others.
Ultimately, the school board chose an LAUSD lifer, who not only attended elementary school in the district, but also went to Palms Junior High and Palisades High School. She began her teaching career as a science and health teacher at Porter Middle School in Granada Hills. She went on to serve as magnet coordinator at Orville Wright Math, Science and Aerospace Magnet Middle School in Westchester and then became principal of Hamilton High School in West Los Angeles.
During her tenure at Hamilton, student achievement improved in all subgroups as evidenced by growth on the California Academic Performance Index. In July 2005, she was appointed assistant superintendent of health and human services.
“To quote (John) Lennon and (Paul) McCartney, we didn’t know the long and winding road would lead us to our own door,” Zimmer said, quoting lyrics from a Beattles song in describing a process that involved interviews with candidates from around the country. “It led us to the right door.”
King served under John Deasy as his chief superintendent, and when he left, she offered to take over the job temporarily, even while pledging support for him in a letter. However, when Ramon Cortines decided to return for 14 months after Deasy resigned, Cortines decided to keep King in the number two spot as he pushed the board to find a new superintendent.
Cortines attended the announcement with King’s three daughters and parents, as well as every member of the school board. “I thank Ramon Cortines for his leadership, guidance and friendship, thank you for being here today, it means so much,” King said.
In her role as a deputy superintendent, King generally kept a low profile in the district. But, recent events put her up front. She was one of the first people to make calls and help decided to shut the school district down for a day after school board member received a bomb and assault threat to the district last month. Last week, she toured the sites of two schools that were displaced by the methane gas leak in Porter Ranch. She was greeted with hugs by school personnel and members of the construction crew team.
That affection reflected a wider respect King has engendered during her years in LA Unified. A review of the district’s online survey to solicit input as to what qualities a new superintendent should have found that King was the most frequently named suggestion, and that came from parents, adminstrators, teachers and some support staff.
One support staff employee wrote: “The necessary characteristics for this position is already being displayed by Ms. Michelle King. This is a person that has been through the ranks and earned this position. The district should never look outside to fill this position but look within. Outsiders would never begin to understand our complex district and only push our accomplishments backward.” Another wrote: “The Best Person for the Job already works for us. Open your eyes. Michelle King, Michelle King, I can prove that thousands of staff believe as I do. Shall we get signatures to prove it.”
King holds a bachelor’s degree from UCLA and a master’s from Pepperdine University. While majoring in biology at UCLA, she said she decided she wanted to become a teacher. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in education at the University of Southern California.
“I hope to inspire students of all races and backgrounds to pursue their dreams,” King said. “LA Unified has been part of my life since I was five years old. My teachers instilled in me a lifelong yearning to learn.”
It is expected that King will take her place on the horseshoe at the first official school board meeting of the year tomorrow, a place she is familiar with, and already has a placard with her name on it.
* Adds King, Zimmer comments