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.
"She would be at functions from 7 in the morning till 9 at night," he said.
In 2009, Ms. Melendez was named California Superintendent of the Year.
Not bad for someone who "wouldn't be able to make it" at UCLA.
To this day, the experience Ms. Melendez had with her high school guidance counselor is all too common.
A 2006 study by Louis G. Tornatzky of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a Latino think tank, found that Hispanics still do not have sufficient guidance when making decisions related to college and careers.
But her personal experience as a student in public schools was far from all bad. It's more accurate to say Ms. Melendez's experience was more a roller-coaster ride, featuring the best and worst of public education.
Examples from both extremes are equally instructive. In short, what they show is this: the impact that an educator's encouraging or discouraging words can have upon a child cannot be overstated.
Ms. Melendez's life as a student started on a good note, when she started kindergarten in 1963 in Montebello. There, she was the only student in the class classified as an "English language learner."
"My teacher, Mrs. Silverman, was an amazing teacher," Ms. Melendez said. "She never let me feel like I was any less than the other kids."
That year, she learned to love school. But the next year was a low point.
In first grade, she was placed in the lowest reading group. Ms. Melendez could read well in Spanish, but the teacher didn't recognize her potential.
"All I did all day long was learn the alphabet," she said.
Her parents, strong education advocates from the start, met with the school principal. But their pleas for more challenging coursework fell on deaf ears. So they pulled her out of that school and sent her to another. By second grade, she was in the highest reading group.
"It really is all about expectation," she said. "I firmly believe that the interaction between the student and teacher is the most important that occurs on the school ground."
Ms. Melendez isn't soft on accountability. She said it has been a crucial aspect of her formula for success.
In this way, she is not dissimilar from the administration for which she works.
In early March, both President Obama and Secretary Duncan took heat from teachers unions for publicly praising a contentious decision by a school board in Rhode Island for firing all 93 employees of an under-performing high school, including the teachers and principal.
"If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn't show any sign of improvement, then there's got to be a sense of accountability," President Obama said in a speech. "And that's what happened in Rhode Island last week at a chronically troubled school, when just 7 percent of 11th-graders passed state math tests -- 7 percent."
To be sure, Ms. Melendez's words on that particular firestorm were considerably more measured.
"We sometimes have to really seriously look at what the student-achievement data is telling us and act from that," she told HispanicBusiness Magazine.
But she says she deeply supports President Obama's vision for public education. It includes boosting the federal budget for education by $3.5 billion, or 7.5 percent.
It also involves altering No Child Left Behind.
In general, the administration plans to take a "tight on goals, loose on means" approach. This means that the White House would like to keep in tact the goal of closing the achievement gap, but grant states more flexibility on how to get there.
Meanwhile, more and more research is showing that the key to a good education has less to do with a perfect curriculum than it does with great teachers.
This is a lesson Ms. Melendez learned firsthand.
After her meeting with the high school counselor, she decided to attend a community college. While there, she had an inspiring political science instructor who so happened to also teach at UCLA.
One day, she asked him: "Do you think I can make it at UCLA?"
His response, she remembers, "was exactly what my counselor said, only shorter: 'Absolutely.'"
She applied, and even though she didn't have enough credits to transfer, she got in based on her high school grades and SAT score. She graduated UCLA with honors.
Ms. Melendez is careful to add that there is nothing wrong with community colleges.
"Community colleges are wonderful, Cal-State is great too," she said. "But for me my dream was UCLA. ... You don't rip that dream from a child."
Her ultimate goal, she said, is to help children chase their dreams.
"I want them to have teachers like Mrs. Silverman, to have access and success in college," she said. "That's why I decided to work in public education."
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