As an ex-United States Naval officer, Bruce Mims is not accustomed to looking back.
“I always try to look ahead and envision what I can do better,” he told The Argonaut in an interview last year.
For the first time since he was dismissed from his position as principal at Westchester High School by former Local District Three Superintendent Michelle King, Mims spoke with The Argonaut about his tenure at the high school and how his departure has ignited a flurry of responses and reactions to the district’s commitment to a popular but challenging local control movement.
“My experience at Westchester, despite everything that happened at the end was very rewarding,” Mims began in an exclusive interview July 1, the day after he was no longer employed by LAUSD. “A lot of courageous people played a very critical role in the improvements that we were able to make during the time I was principal at the high school.”
Mims said he was on the reduction list at LAUSD during his tenure in Westchester, which he learned late into his first year. In some ways, his termination did not surprise him, since he was new to the district and LAUSD is still grappling with a multi-million dollar budget deficit.
“What happened to me is a reflection of what is happening at the district,” Mims, who came to LAUSD from the Long Beach Unified School District, said. “I was the only principal with a non-permanent contract, which was not disclosed to me in my first year.”
Some of the things that were accomplished during the 18 months that Mims was at Westchester High include a full accreditation extension from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the state agency that provides accreditation for educational entities in the western United States. In addition, the school had a surge in its Academic Performance Index (API) scores, jumping 26 points last year, and the high school posted the largest increase in overall pass rate on the California High School Exit Exam in Local District 4, which includes Westchester, Venice, Mar Vista, Playa del Rey and Del Rey.
Mims was brought to Westchester by the high school’s hiring committee, a source of pride for both the ex-principal and the members of the committee.
“One reason that I take my responsibility here so seriously is because the community hired me,” the former principal said weeks after he came to Westchester. “It makes me feel very validated.
“As a professional, that was probably the greatest single moment of my educational career.”
Gail Levy, whose daughter attends Westchester High, gave the ex-principal credit for making immediate structural changes.
“I really think that that there was a lack of leadership in recent years at the high school, and that improved because Dr. Mims is a very strategic organizer,” said Levy, who was on the hiring committee. “He created a structure that was missing.”
News of Mims’ dismissal, which was announced by King May 27, prompted widespread anger and confusion among many autonomy advocates, who believed it was their right, under a previous agreement with LAUSD, to hire members of the administration at the five schools that are participating in the autonomy movement that will allow them increased decision-making power at their schools.
“During the past several weeks, Superintendent (Ramon) Cortines, (Innovation and Charter Executive Director Parker Hudnut) and I have received numerous messages regarding the leadership at Westchester High School,” King wrote in a letter to Westchester parents and high school faculty members. “After careful consideration, Superintendent Cortines is appointing Mr. Stephen Rochelle as transitional principal for Westchester High School effective Tuesday, June 1.”
No reason for the principal’s termination was given and local control advocates were outraged. Some have resurrected calls to start a charter school, while others are demanding that the district honor their hard-fought rights under autonomy.
Westchester-Playa Education Foundation President Kelly Kane admired Mims’ courage in trying to return Westchester High’s academic record to prominence, despite what she said were enormous obstacles by the district and other parties.
“The best thing about Dr. Mims is that he was not afraid of anything,” said Kane, a longtime autonomy proponent. “He stood up to everyone.”
That, according to Kane and others, may have factored in the decision in the former principal’s termination. Kane, whose two children attend elementary school in Westchester, said internal forces also made it hard for someone as straightforward as Mims to right what she called “a rudderless ship” at the high school.
“If LAUSD would have stopped allowing people to come on campus and sell their products to teachers and allow other parents and non-parents to set up their own little enterprises on campus — none of which are related to making our kids better students — that would have made Dr. Mims’ job a lot easier,” she asserted.
She blames King for allowing these purported activities to occur and for the perpetrators to lobby the district against Mims.
“Michelle King has yet to return any of my phone calls about what happened to Dr. Mims and the future of autonomy, even after I was promised that she would,” Kane said.
King, who is now Cortines’ chief of staff, declined to comment for this story.
While he maintains the fiscal crisis at LAUSD was the determining factor in his departure, Mims did acknowledge that some of his detractors made his job of reforming the high school much more difficult.
“There were, in fact, competing and undermining interests that don’t always have to do with the success of kids that made it more difficult for everyone,” Mims acknowledged. “These polarizing influences sought to marginalize other people and seemed to create an emotional response, often using data from our academic improvements to further their own purposes.”
The former Westchester principal said there was a great deal of disenchantment among parents and teachers toward the school district when he arrived, and he was not aware of the extent of the discontent until well into his first year.
“If more had been revealed to me, I might have changed my approach,” he said.
Kane said it was Mims’ direct approach that might have angered his LAUSD superiors.
“Dr. Mims was not part of the LAUSD culture, which is to say that he wanted to get things done and not continue the status quo or protect someone’s crony at the local district office,” she asserted. “I’m sure that because he was at times forceful and determined, that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.”
Mims, like Kane and other autonomy supporters, believes it is vital to allow Westchester High to have input in choosing its next principal.
“I think it is imperative that the district engage in a dialogue with the existing school sites,” he said. “It was clear to me that many of the stakeholders did not understand what (autonomies) they had, and I sometimes felt that I was caught in the middle because of this lack of communication.”
LAUSD board member Steve Zimmer said he is committed to seeing autonomy thrive in Westchester.
“I completely support the Family of Schools in Westchester and I believe they should have a larger say in who is hired at Orville Wright (Middle School) and at Westchester High School,” the LAUSD board member, who represents Westchester, said in an interview last month.
Mims said he believes that Zimmer will soon take a more active role in assisting Westchester schools with local control.
“I’m confident that Mr. Zimmer will recalibrate and refocus on this dialogue (between the district and autonomy advocates),” he said.
Kane has a suggestion for what she thinks should be Zimmer’s next move.
“He can begin by making sure that the (memorandum of understanding) with Loyola Marymount University is signed,” she recommended, referring to an agreement that outlines what assistance the university will provide to the Westchester schools, along with each school’s autonomies.
Despite the final outcome, Mims said Kane and her organization, along with Westchester High parents like Levy, Ann Wexler and others made his job easier and he is grateful to those who have been supportive throughout his forced departure from LAUSD.
“I am very, deeply appreciative of the outpouring of good wishes and support that came from all corners of the stakeholder groups,” he said. “It was very moving for me.”
Mims said that although he is concerned for the future of autonomy, he hopes all parties consider what he says should be the most important principle: what’s best for the students.
“I know that my (departure) had nothing to do with my performance,” he concluded. “My hope is that if something positive happens because of this, as long as it’s in the best interests of student learning and achievement, then I’m alright with it.”