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LAUSD Maverick Principal Celebrates Centennial

Reut Cohen |
May 25, 2012 | 12:45 p.m. PDT

Contributor

Josephine and her grandson, Diego. (Reut Cohen)
Josephine and her grandson, Diego. (Reut Cohen)
During the whirlwind social-political revolution of the 1970’s, Los Angeles Unified School Districts were pushed and prodded toward racial integration. The push was not always welcomed; some measures, such as mandatory busing of students from poorer neighborhoods to schools in better areas, were controversial with parents and administrators. Those who shaped integration policies of Los Angeles’ public education system, who worked diligently to accept students of various ethnic backgrounds into their public schools, were mavericks rarely recognized today for their improvement of the LAUSD and proactive steps toward equality. Perhaps no one is more of a maverick than Josephine Casanova Jimenez. Her influential career in the LAUSD where she served both as a teacher and principal spanned nearly half a century. She celebrated her 100th birthday this month.

“She’s always been ahead—of everybody in everything. She’s always been a pioneer,” said her son, Carlos Jimenez, who followed his mother’s footsteps into the LAUSD.

Josephine’s frail body hides a surprisingly active mind. She isn’t especially ill, but she is at the end of her life. Although speaking is overtiring for her, she is cognizant of her surroundings—her dark eyes carefully watchful of her family as they describe the woman who has impacted and shaped their lives, along with thousands of schoolchildren. She’s also especially fond of her grandchildren, who visit her regularly—her face lights up when she sees her sons’ children.

“Grandma is really cool,” says Diego, Jimenez’s grandson. Josephine likes to hear about Diego’s life in high school and he loves getting advice from her.

Jimenez’s background is an interesting one considering the era in which she went to school and worked. She was born in Cuba and immigrated to the United States when she was 6 years old. She attended schools in Los Angeles County, excelling in academics and demonstrating an affinity for music and languages. However, her parents, who were very traditional, did not want Jimenez to attend university as they felt it was not the “proper” thing for a woman to do. Jimenez, who always knew her own mind, went against her parents’ wishes and eventually went on to graduate from UCLA in 1935, earning her BA in Spanish. She also pursued a Master’s degree at the university in Education Studies. Jimenez made history by becoming one of the first Latinas to graduate from UCLA.

Outwardly, she was and is a very proper lady—dressing the part. In her old photos, her hair was perfectly coiffed—even now her soft gray hair is neatly brushed and trimmed. She seems to take pride in her appearance, wearing pearls and light pink ballet flats. But she’s also got a mind as sharp as a razor, able to recall events and communicate with her family. She may also have a few secrets of her own.

The years immediately following her graduation are a bit unclear even to her family.

Jimenez worked as a teacher in the California suburbs of Barstow and Ontario. She was recruited by the U.S. War Department where she worked in the Office of Censorship in Los Angeles. The office was set up during WWII—an emergency wartime agency that examined communications coming into and going out of the United States. Jimenez, fluent in Spanish and French, opened and read letters for the agency.

In 1945, Jimenez began working with the LAUSD at Garfield High School as a foreign languages teacher. During her nine years at Garfield High School Jimenez also established the first Ballet Folkloric Group in the district, helping to bring culture and the arts to the high school.

“She taught mainly Spanish and Music,” explained Carlos.

She eventually transferred to Alexander Hamilton High School, where she worked for 32 years. During her tenure at Hamilton High, Jimenez was first a teacher, then vice-principal and finally principal. She also became the first Latina principal of a senior high school in the LAUSD.

When she became principal of Hamilton High School, the LAUSD was going through a major social-political shift. Parents were demanding that their students have access to better schools and public school integration efforts were increasing. Integrating students, however, was a problem for some schools as it was met with opposition. Nevertheless, Jimenez met the challenge head on despite warnings from well-intentioned colleagues worried that she would not be able to handle the turbulent atmosphere that was sometimes racially charged.

“I have tremendous respect for anyone courageous enough to accept a principalship in these times,” Vern W. Robinson, the director of relations with schools from UCLA, wrote to Jimenez. “You are the kind of person I like to see in these jobs, but on the other hand, I would hate to see you hurt by it.”

According to Jimenez, her time at Hamilton High School and the challenges of her position were “some of the most rewarding years” in her career. Jimenez did not get “hurt” at Hamilton. Instead she got busy dealing with issues of racial integration, creating the Humanities Magnet, the Arts Academy and the Music Programs. In 1977 the first magnet schools in the LAUSD system were established because of her hard work, eventually diversifying district demographics. Magnet programs provided specialized education for students around L.A. County and were an alternative to desegregation busing, which came a year later. 

At Hamilton, the magnet program helped to bring in young adults of various backgrounds to the school. The program also helped to establish the school as exemplary.

“Quite of bit of education in the family—both my parents were teachers and Mom went on to be a principal,” said Carlos, who teaches Social Studies at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School.

It’s no surprise that in 1985 Jimenez became the Director of Instruction for all Senior High School in LAUSD. In 1988 she was promoted to Operations Administrator for the Senior High Schools Division where she was a mentor and role model for other LAUSD administrators.

She even took care of her own mother at the time—finding a balance between her work, volunteerism and her mother’s care.

“My grandmother had a stroke,” explained Carlos. “For the last ten years of my grandmother's life Josephine had to go back and forth from work to the house to take care of her.”

Josephine’s dedication—a unique, inspiring commitment—was noticed throughout her career. She has been the recipient of several awards and recognitions, including the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Outstanding Principal award in 1984 and the Women of the Year recognition in 1973. She is also credited with the implementation of a successful partnership between UCLA, California State University, Northridge, and the LAUSD for the “Reaching University Writing Standards” program. In 1990, she was recognized for her involvement with the California Writing Project at the university.

Jimenez officially retired in 1992 at the age of 79. But unofficially, she was still active in her field. She served in numerous committees, such as the National Association of Secondary School principals, and volunteered in Los Angeles’ school district’s Academic Decathlon Competitions and the Accrediting Commission for Schools of the Western Association of Schools.

When Jimenez moved into Kingsley Manor, a retirement center in Los Angeles, she researched and made the decision on her own.

“She decided she wanted to so it wouldn’t be a burden on [the family],” said Carlos. “I felt, as usual, such a tremendous sense of awe.”

She didn’t transition into retirement quietly. She became the head of the hospitality committee of the home and tried to help others adapt to their new lives.

Jimenez’s advice for a life well lived is to be in charge, to be aware. “This is it,” she said in a cracked voice and a small smile, her gentle eyes filled with an understanding that seems to come with age. She is happy at the center. Her elegant, long-fingered hands rest on her lap and she looks up speculatively as her son and daughter-in-law explain her retirement.

“She never complains,” said Virginia Jimenez, Josephine’s daughter-in-law. “It amazes me how positive she is.”

Even now, at 100, Jimenez is still mentally active, asking about her daughter-in-law’s family in Mexico and making sure all of her affairs are settled before she passes on.

“She does it on her own,” said Virginia, describing her mother-in-law’s method of remembering and staying mentally active. “She says that she uses themes—she thinks of things, like her family in Cuba. And she’ll start replaying memories.”

Just last week Jimenez asked Virginia about a niece on her side of the family who lives in Mexico. She can recall memories “from like 80 years ago or 90 years ago,” according to her son.

“The body is not cooperating anymore, but the mind and soul—it is so alive,” said her daughter-in-law.

 

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