After 41 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District — the last 23 as principal of Third Street Elementary — Dr. Suzie Oh is retiring at the end of the month.
“I am ready to move on to the next chapter of my life,” she says with some apprehension. “I like this school. I like the community here… I have been honored to serve as principal… with amazingly supportive and resourceful parents, motivated and adorable students and hard-working, dedicated, committed and caring teachers.”
Pretty much everyone feels the same way about her.
“She was just remarkable,” said Cindy Chvatal-Keane, president of the Hancock Park Homeowners Assoc, est. 1948, “… from the test scores and the kids and the education” to beautification efforts at the June St. school.
“She’s been a wonderful partner to the community. She’s always been sensitive to the fact that they are in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It’s been a pleasure to work with her.”
Dr. Oh arrives at dawn at the Hancock Park campus serving 750 kindergarten to fifth-grade students. She calls it a “hands-on” job, from covering a class until the substitute arrives to helping with student drops-offs, which was how, on a recent morning, she sprained her foot, twisting it on the street’s uneven pavement.
By the afternoon, for this interview, her foot was levitated and on ice after a visit to a local urgent-care facility.
Her office door wide open, staff and volunteers drop in, wishing her well, asking questions or borrowing one of the many books with the latest research on education she keeps on her stacked shelves. “The more you learn, the more you realize how much you didn’t know,” she smiles.
Under her stewardship, Third Street has continually made high marks, recently scoring 95 out of 100 in the School Quality Improvement System of the California Office to Reform Education (CORE) which prepares students for college and careers.
Dr. Oh calls schools “learning centers,” with the principal and parents learning and growing alongside students.
“When parents are involved, informed and empowered, public schools do better,” she says.
She recognizes and values children’s “efforts” and encourages them to ask questions.
“This way kids are really engaged, and we can even engage the unengaged ones,” she adds.
After all, “public education is the backbone of our democratic process, providing equal opportunities, justice, equity for all…
“I believe better teaching does not come from a political mandate. It comes from the heart of a prepared and caring teacher.”
Oh started her career as an elementary school teacher. She taught English-as-a-second-language (ESL) courses at Los Angeles High, was an assistant principal at Hobart Elementary, a coordinator at Wilton Place Elementary, and in the bilingual department at LAUSD.
She earned her master’s in education and administration, and doctoral degrees from USC. She is an adjunct professor at Cal State Los Angeles and has supervised teacher credentialing programs at USC and Cal State Long Beach. She has also taught Korean language and culture programs at Santa Monica and Los Angeles community colleges.
At Third Street, she’s particularly proud of expanding the Wonder of Reading Library and instituting a Korean Dual Language Immersion Program.
Among the program’s pupils is the 10-year old daughter of Patricia Alexander, president of Friends of Third. “I thought it would be a great experience for her to learn about the Korean culture and some of the language.”
Alexander moved with her husband and three children to the area largely because of Third Street’s top ratings. “I think [Dr. Oh] works to make it a great school.
“It has very high standards. [Dr. Oh] keeps the academics up… and also recognizes kids who need extra help.”
When a special needs class was moved from another school to the Third St. campus, Dr. Oh “was really welcoming with open arms,” said Alexander.
Suzanne Nichols, a theater teacher at the school, calls Dr. Oh “an inspiration and a mentor…
“She encouraged me to pursue my masters in educational leadership, which I now have today…
“She has seen the pendulum shift in education, was at the forefront of ESL classes, and continues to stay at the forefront of educational shifts by educating herself and visiting other countries to learn about what’s working there and share what’s working here.”
This summer, like most summers, Dr. Oh will travel to South Korea for talks at universities. “They really need to reform their system,” she laments. While strong in math and memorization, “they will never have a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates at this rate,” she tells them.
What they need are “help in soft skills: conflict resolution, seeing through multiple lenses, collaboration, team work.”
She’s a popular speaker there, having learned a thing or two about education since she emigrated from South Korea to Los Angeles as a teen.
She appreciated the freedom she found in her new country, where she could speak up.
And, she’s had a fulfilling career.
“As a teacher, you impact your own class; as a principal, you can make a difference for all your 32 teachers and how they teach.”
She will continue part-time teaching posts, brush up on her Spanish and travel, she says.
“There are so many books to read, so many places to visit… I place a premium on spontaneity, passport stamps and freedom.”