When Tommy Chang started the first grade, his gym teacher told him to remove his jacket for class. But the youngster, a recent arrival to the United States from Taiwan, did not speak English.
The teacher repeated the command several times, his voice rising in anger, Chang recalled at a public forum in Boston this week. But his words meant nothing. Finally, the gym teacher grabbed him by the arm and brought him to his classroom teacher, who quickly realized the situation and stood up for the boy.
That classroom teacher would prove a pivotal figure in Chang’s life, instilling a love of learning that took him to the Ivy League, a teaching position at a struggling Los Angeles high school, and a fast-track career as a school administrator. Now a finalist to become superintendent of the Boston public schools, Chang recalled the childhood story to illustrate his belief in the power of education and to personalize his commitment to students who face special challenges.
“I have lived that life,” he said at Tuesday’s forum.
Although Chang, 39, now oversees more than 130 public schools in Los Angeles, the country’s second-largest school district, he said he still considers himself foremost a teacher and bases broad decisions on their direct effect on the classroom.
“You need an intense focus on instruction,” he said of efforts to improve struggling schools. “If you don’t change what’s going on in the classroom, things aren’t going to change.”
In three years as superintendent of the Intensive Support and Innovation Center, which oversees low-performing and pilot schools in Los Angeles, Chang has gained a reputation for a quick mind, collaborative approach, and a strong conviction that schools need room to experiment, colleagues say. He believes schools often require sweeping change to improve and believes traditional methods and systems are often standing in the way.
“He’s not a manager of schools, he’s trying to move them forward,” said Tommy Welch, principal of Nava College Preparatory Academy, a pilot high school that opened last fall. “He’ll shake it up; he’s not afraid.”
Disappointed with other high schools in south Los Angeles, a group of parents made plans to start the pilot school from scratch, and Chang quickly recognized their commitment, Welch said. A neighborhood high school had lost droves of students over the years, and Chang thought “we should try to bring them back,” he said.
“It was a big risk, but he rolled the dice,” Welch said.
Welch said Chang is an “on-the-ground” superintendent and often visits the schools. He does not micromanage, he said, but expects results.
“If you’re not open to embracing change, you’ll definitely be turned off” by Chang’s approach, Welch said.
On Tuesday, Chang said that while schools “don’t escape the system,” they should all have the freedom to make changes that show promise. At the same time, they have to show improvement, he said.
“Like the old Spider-Man line,” he said with a chuckle, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
Answering questions from a panel of civic leaders, Chang occasionally relied on education jargon, prompting some sighs from parents in the audience. But he spoke with passion about helping students in special education reach their potential and about narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students.
“Every single school should serve every single kid,” he said.
Chang recalled teaching biology at Compton High School, a long-struggling, low-income school, where he developed an advanced placement course and raised more than $10,000 to support it, as proof that high expectations can lead to breakthroughs.
In his time as instructional superintendent, graduation rates have jumped, suspensions are down, and more students are going on to college, he said.
“We have shown dramatic success,” he said.
He quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement in “Letter From Birmingham Jail” that the country was moving “at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.”
“For many of our youth, that cup of coffee is their education,” he said. “There is no silver bullet here. But we have to be relentless.”
Antonio Plascencia Jr., program and policy development adviser for the Intensive Support and Innovation Center, said that while former Los Angeles Superintendent John Deasy, who resigned last fall, has received acclaim for the district’s academic progress, Chang has been the driving force.
“Deasy gets a lot of credit for the reforms,” Plascencia said. “But I attribute them to Dr. Chang. He has a unique, open perspective. He wants you to think outside the box.”
He said Chang worked closely with school leaders to get parents more involved and used persistent tactics. Staff would call each parent to invite them to school meetings, then call again to remind them. At Jefferson High School, one of the schools Chang oversees, attendance at college workshops surged to new heights in just weeks.
Yet Jefferson High was embroiled in controversy last fall over widespread scheduling problems, which brought Chang and other administrators under scrutiny. Hundreds of the Jefferson students walked out in protest, and civil rights groups sued to make sure students had access to the proper classes. (Boston experienced similar scheduling glitches in the fall at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury.)
In Los Angeles, the district eventually approved a $1.1 million plan to extend the school day and offer additional classes. Chang reached out to parents to hear their concerns, and in just weeks involvement surged.
Chang also worked closely with parents at the 24th Street Elementary School, who used California’s “parent trigger” law to overhaul the school. While administrators in two other districts had fought parents’ reform efforts, Chang welcomed them, said Gabe Rose, chief strategy officer of Parent Revolution, a group that pressed for the law.
“It never would have happened without Tommy,” Rose said. “For the first time ever, a district said, ‘Great! Thank you for speaking up. We haven’t done our jobs, but we’re going to fight like hell to keep the school.’ ”
Asked by the panel what qualities he would look for when hiring school leaders, Chang said he would want to see a “track record of success.” But he would also want educators with “a deep empathy for kids.”
“What we don’t talk enough about is the social-emotional piece of this,” he said.
Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com.