Thursday, June 24, 2010



By Diana L. Chapman

Veteran Principal Zan Colazas – who ushered in after school Italian classes and encouraged parents to dress his campus in artistic mosaics – announced his retirement from Seventh Street Elementary School in San Pedro where he served for nearly a decade.

He leaves at the end of June.

Taking with him stories riddled in both horrific heart-break and glowing warmth, Colazas departs from a school he adores, a staff he admires and the faces of 550 elementary children he can’t resist. His health, he said, pushed him out the door sooner than he expected when his blood pressure soared.

“My personal life is stress free,” Colazas explained, adding that he’s proud of his 19-year-old daughter, Kristin Colazas Delfs, who is currently studying Arabic in Morocco. “But (the job) is becoming more difficult and more stressful. The support for the principal and teachers has been slowly eroding. They cut our custodian. They cut our clerk position. They cut our literacy coach and writing coach. We averted disaster with our library.

“I love the school and I love my job. It’s just that nothing stays the same, does it?”

The district’s increasing budget mayhem, however, has taken a toll on his health and reduced his staff (many he considered like family) by more than 20 percent . So at the age of 57, he vowed to hang up his chalk board and walk away from primarily Los Angeles unified schools that have partially shaped his life over the past 33 years.

Facing a $640 million deficit for 2010-2011, the Los Angeles school board approved the layoffs of thousands of teachers, custodians and other administrative staff Tuesday.
Even during tough times – Seventh Street has markedly improved in test scores, earning many accolades and built a better reputation and bridge with the community.

Despite being a Title 1 School – meaning many of the students are below the poverty line – the campus swarms with an unusual number of parent volunteers which helped beautify the once drab school with colorful mosaics – including a long windy outdoor wall that snakes in front of the library.

As part of the school’s literacy garden, the wall – about the height of a bench that was geared as a place for students to sit and read– speckles daily with an array of bright and bold mosaic tiles that represent children’s books such as Charlotte’s Webb and The Cat and the Hat.

While beautifying the school was one of his goals from “it’s drab 1960s look” and achieving a campus that has an “overarching philosophy of doing what’s best for kids,” he’s proud of bringing aboard a Wonder of Reading Library – which enhanced the facility and doubled its size.

Winning the California Distinguished Award in 2006 and 2010, Seventh Street also achieved federal recognition four times for “Triple A” academic achievement.

Because an Italian population exists in San Pedro – and Colazas believes in introducing children to second languages as soon as possible – he grabbed the chance for grants that provided Italian classes. For the past five years, he applied and received funding which sends an Italian teacher to Seventh Street four times a week to teach two classes.

It’s programs like this and his support for parents that improved the campus.
Jeannie De La Cruz, the president of the Parent Teacher Organization who herself is stepping down from the leadership post, said she and other parents will be sad to see Colazas leave.

“We will miss him very much,” De La Cruz said. “He was a great principal and he did what he could for the parents and the students. He was supportive with the parents and the workers. It’s a stressful position.”

Los Angeles School Board Member Richard Vladovic agreed that Colazas was an excellent fit for the school. "I brought back Zan to the district and assigned him to Seventh Street,” he said. “His leadership will be missed."

Describing a career both sweet and sour, rewarding and punctuated with heartbreak for some students, Colazas , a Long Beach resident, began teaching kindergarten at the private Rancho Lomita School in Lomita about age 19. He leaped to Los Angeles Unified when he was hired in 1977 to work as a sixth grade teacher at Manchester Avenue Elementary School in South Central.

Working at that school was some of the happiest times in his life, he added, because he knew he could aid the children there.

“I loved it,” he said, dressed in a casual periwinkle-colored shirt and sitting in a chaotic office due to the move. “It’s the kids who need help and where a teacher can really impact a kids life in a good way. I might have stayed, but I got bumped out.”

While Manchester was primarily an African-American school, he did spot a growing Hispanic population which led him to take courses to become fluent in Spanish and receive a California Bilingual Certificate. That opened doors, he never expected. Other teachers recruited him to the Harbor area where he taught sixth grade at Wilmington Park School in 1983.

From there, he worked his way into becoming “an outreach consultant, which is like a glorified truancy officer,” he said, where he was in charge of uncovering why students failed to attend schools. Reasons stemmed from children having nowhere to wash or bath, because they were living in junkyards, boatyards or entire families were residing in cars or the children were “school phobic” – too terrorized to attend.

“I did help a lot of kids, because I’d solve the problem,” he explained of the post. “If it was clothing, I’d find them clothing. If it was baths, I’d find them housing. I guess the worst case I saw was two kids. They lived in a wrecking yard and they both had severe head lice. They were never going to get into school that way. We were able to find them hotel vouchers.
“It was a real eye-opening experience.”

His career took off in an administrative fashion where he held numerous posts and in 1992 soon became an assistant principal – who then ping ponged into schools that needed substitute principals and the “rocky road began.” Each time, he landed a new school to fill in for top administrator on leave, they’d return and he’d get bumped “again.”

In 1994 – after an 11-year-old boy fatally shot himself on the front steps of Forty-Ninth Street School, Colazas was tapped to take over the school after the principal and the boy’s teacher both took leaves of absence.

His job was to pull the devastated morale at the campus back together and get the staff and students through the horrific suicide. The child killed himself after a teacher demanded he get his father’s signature on a paper or not to bother to come back to school. It’s a ploy teachers have used so students can attend field trips and such, the principal said.

No one knew the child was so terrified of his father that killing himself seemed the better option than asking.

“It was a tough school, a tough year, and everyone thought the principal wouldn’t come back, but he did,” the administrator said. “I had to clean up some messes, fire some employees and then rebuild morale and build a positive spirit. We brought in an arts program the students never had.

“It was a challenging year.”

He continued to ping-pong to two more schools before he landed at Hawaiian Avenue Elementary School in Wilmington where he stayed for six years. He left the district briefly and then returned to Seventh Street in 2001 and found himself home at last.

“It’s a school that really fits into my philosophy and I had a good run (at Seventh Street),” he said. “I plan to travel, fix my house and spend time with family. I’m going to miss it. I already have twinges of sadness.”

A replacement principal has not yet been selected, he added.