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Sid Thompson: 1931-2023

First African American LAUSD superintendent led the district through innovation, restructuring, and the wake of the 1992 L.A. unrest.

Sidney A. Thompson, senior fellow at UCLA’s Center X and former superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, has died at the age of 92 in Pasadena, California. The first African American to lead the nation’s second largest school district, Thompson had a post-retirement career of mentoring students from 1997 to 2012 in the Principal Leadership Institute, a graduate program of the UCLA School of Education & Information Studies. He later served PLI as a volunteer Senior Fellow of the program. 

“Sid was a historic figure on many levels,” says John Rogers, UCLA professor of education, director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, and faculty director of and Center X. “After retiring from LAUSD, he taught with PLI for something like two decades.  He was a wonderful mentor to young school leaders—caring, thoughtful, and deeply committed to social justice.  Above all, Sid was a remarkable human being that served as a guiding light for our program.  He will be greatly missed.”

Born in Los Angeles, Thompson attended UCLA before entering the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA), graduating in 1952. He served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean Conflict, and as a young lieutenant on board ship, he led enlisted men from urban and rural backgrounds across the U.S. Many under Thompson’s charge had not completed high school, and he helped them acquire their GED high school equivalency.

Thompson became a math teacher at Pacoima Junior High School in 1956. While teaching, he earned his master’s degree in secondary administration from California State University, Los Angeles in 1960. Thompson served as a junior high and high school principal from 1969 to 1976 before becoming a school administrator. In 1992, he was appointed the 42nd Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in the United States.

Thompson championed numerous innovations in LAUSD, such as encouraging students to take algebra in the 8th grade before it became a state requirement, and restructuring the large district and reorganizing its K-12 schools into a clearly defined pipeline from elementary school to middle and high school. Although this structure was later changed back to its previous form, Thompson said the reorganization made parental support easier for families. Thompson’s tenure was also characterized by challenges that were described as “legion and intractable” in a 1996 Los Angeles Times story announcing his pending retirement. Headlined “LAUSD Consumes Another One,” the article pointed to the troubling turnover of four superintendents in 10 years.

“Yet, the job had its rewards,” recalled Thompson in a 2014 interview. “District administration can be an adult world, with adult agendas and culture. As a superintendent … I liked working with kids because there was still hope for them.”

Thompson took the same approach with students in the PLI program, many of whom were already working as principals and administrators at schools in some of L.A.’s most underserved, low-income communities.  

“The positive feelings I have for the future of education are based upon the talent that I see displayed by the next generation,” said Thompson. “They have high hopes for the improvement of education for the poor and disadvantaged. We need to work with them and with our experience, give them the authority to try new systems so that they feel a sense of ownership for what can happen to improve the education of our young people.”

Thompson was an avid sailor and enjoyed travel, opera, and spending time with his blended family. Thompson served on the USMMA Board of Advisors and was honored with the USMMA Alumni Outstanding Professional Achievement Award. He also served on the Los Angeles Maritime Institute’s Board of Directors, providing sail training for adolescents in the Los Angeles area. 

Thompson is survived by his brothers Irwin and Denis; his sister Lynne; his daughters Sachi and husband John, Lisa and husband Richard, and Terrie and husband Rene; and his son Chris and wife Kirsti. His blended family includes stepsons, Tony, Michael, and James; grandchildren, Joshua, Corinne, Natalie, Danielle and husband Aric and Erinn and her wife Caroline; step-grandchildren Lily and Marty; great-granddaughters Jordan, Ryann and Caitlin; and great-grandsons Elijah and Grayson; as well as numerous nieces and nephews. Thompson’s granddaughter Danielle has carried forth his legacy of working in education as a special needs teacher in Walnut, California.

Memorial services will be held on January 19, 2024, at 11:30 a.m., at Inglewood Cemetery Mortuary, 3801 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood CA  90302.