Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana was a stellar high school student. So when she visited her guidance counselor excited to share her college dreams, she was stunned by the response.
"I said to the counselor: 'I really want to go to UCLA,'" Ms. Melendez remembers. "The counselor said to me, 'Absolutely not.' When I asked why, she answered: 'Because you wouldn't be able to make it there.' "
Three decades later, Ms. Melendez is a graduate of UCLA and a holder of a doctorate degree. More impressively, she is the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, making her one of the highest-ranking public education officials in the nation. In this capacity, she serves as the chief adviser to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on all matters related to preschool, elementary and secondary education. He, in turn, has the ear of President Obama.
Ms. Melendez, 51, was recruited into the Obama administration at a time of transition for U.S. public education. American public schools were dramatically re-shaped by the Bush administration's sweeping No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which places sanctions on schools that fail to boost the performance of disadvantaged students. The Obama administration embraces much of this legislation -- such as its emphasis on accountability -- but aims to revamp it in several major ways.
The administration hopes to not only boost the federal education budget, but also restructure age-old funding models to reward improvement. It also has hinted it may do away with an NCLB provision many educators have long found unrealistic: bringing every American child to academic proficiency by 2014. Instead, the administration has touted a goal for the United States to boast the world's largest share of college graduates by 2020.
Broadly speaking, the Obama administration still agrees with the NCLB's principal goal: to close the achievement gap between white and minority students.
Ms. Melendez has an exemplary track record for closing this gap, which is among the most pressing problems in American public education.
"She's dynamite," said Richard Rodriguez, President of the Pomona Unified School District, where Ms. Melendez served as the superintendent prior to landing her current job. "She worked hard and really turned things around for us."Her career began when she started teaching first grade in Montebello, California, just east of East Los Angeles.
It eventually took her to the Pomona Unified School District -- about 25 miles east of Montebello -- where in 2006 she became the superintendent.
In the Pomona K-12 school district, three-quarters of the 31,000 students were officially classified as poor, and nearly half were English language learners.
Under her leadership, the students' test scores skyrocketed, so much so that Pomona witnessed record improvements for three consecutive years, and achieved the second-highest jump in California. In 2007, two high schools in the district were ranked by U.S. News & World Report as among America's top 500 schools out of 18,000 nationwide. Ms. Melendez designed and launched a math and science magnet school and a charter school for at-risk seventh- through 12th- graders. She created health science and engineering academies, as well as a partnership with California Polytechnic University and other colleges to create a health career pathway.
Mr. Rodriguez, the Pomona school board president, attributed her success to her deep knowledge, straight-shooting personality and untiring efforts.
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