Education Opinion

Young Education Leader: Ryan Smith

By Sara Mead — June 24, 2013 6 min read
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For those concerned about the future of education reform in the United States, Los Angeles is a critical city to watch. Our nation’s second largest school district faces significant education challenges, including a high drop-out rate, student achievement levels well below national and large-city averages on the NAEP TUDA assessment, a diverse and high-need student population, and a fractious political climate. Yet there are also promising initiatives underway to improve Los Angeles’ lowest-performing schools, and an emerging coalition of both powerful leaders and grassroots parents and families is emerging to improve education in the city.

As Director of Education Programs and Policy for the United Way of Los Angeles, Ryan Smith works to improve education for historically underserved Los Angeles students by investing in effective programs, empowering parents, and building or participating in coalitions to support needed changes. A Los Angeles native, Smith earned his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Los Angeles, where he is currently pursuing a doctorate, and worked for Green Dot Public Schools and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools before joining the United Way. He was also recently inducted into the Annie E. Casey Fellowship where he will study effective strategies to reform large scale systems.

Tell me about United Way of Los Angeles’ work in education reform.
The United Way of Greater Los Angeles is committed to creating pathways out of poverty for all of LA County. We view education as an important lever to do so. Currently only 66% of students graduate from LAUSD and the majority of those who drop out are students of color and/or students who live in poverty. Our goal is to end the dropout crisis by empowering students, parents, and communities to fight for student success. We provide grants to over 100 community-based organizations that provide extended learning intervention to middle schools students and build the capacity of parents and students to become better advocates for their education. We also support research around improving education quality in LA and invest in innovative programs that serve as models for research and development. The United Way is currently partnering with eight low performing middle schools to provide teachers and leaders in those schools the tools they need to support high-quality instruction.

Why did you decide to work on these issues?
My mother was a major influence very early on. She feared the consequences of raising a black son in a community that didn’t provide a quality education. So she spent her entire life savings to move our family to a community that had great schools. She always knew, though, that moving out of the community we came from was not a goodbye, so we volunteered and got active in our old neighborhood and fought for educational justice issues for many of my peers.

The message when I was growing up that I would never truly be successful of my brothers and sisters fail around me. So I’ve dedicated much of my life to give students the opportunity to live quality lives that are fulfilling--and education is the foot in the door for that.

At fifteen I became a youth organizer with a group called Youth United for Community Action and helped create the Higher Learning Program, which focused on students’ rights to an equitable education.

My college experience also reinforced my desire to continue this work. As an incoming freshman at UCLA, I was one of only 27 African American men admitted based on academics alone--in a class almost 7,000. I knew that changing those numbers in higher education would require focusing on the K12 pipeline.

When I worked at Green Dot Public Schools, I was able to launch an advocacy organization, the Los Angeles Parents Union, dedicated to empowering parents to advocate for their schools.

Then I had an opportunity to become part of Mayor Villaraigosa’s Partnership for LA Schools program, which manages 20 of the lowest performing schools in East L.A., Watts, and South Los Angeles. As Senior Director of Parent and Community Engagement, I created the Parent College, a year-long program dedicated to empowering parents through their understand of the “parent 3 r’s” - their rights, roles and responsibilities. Over the past three years that program has educated over 3,000 parents throughout Los Angeles. We also created structures for family engagement, like having a family action team in every school, that are currently being scaled by the District.

What do you see as the major opportunities to improve education in Los Angeles today?
Los Angeles is the second largest city in the United States. LAUSD educates 650,000 K-12 students, the majority of whom are children of color and many of whom live in poverty. Los Angeles has also historically been a city where grassroots strategies have led to change. In 1968, Sal Castro led student walkouts in East Los Angeles to protest unequal conditions for Mexican American students in LAUSD schools. More recently, in 2005, a group of amazing students, parents, and community activities worked together to make sure that all students have access to college preparatory classes . Now we are beginning to see more parent groups advocating on behalf of students in Los Angeles. We’re also seeing leaders and stakeholders who understand the need for change in our city come together and build dynamic coalitions between the civic, government and community based organizations, with support from the United Way. I predict L.A’s story of educational change will be a grassroots, bottom-up story of educational change, not the other way around.

What are the biggest challenges?
Since Los Angeles is a large, diverse city with many different communities and neighborhoods, schooling can look different even in schools that are just miles apart. Effective grassroots organizing requires understanding the neighborhoods you’re serving.

What do you see as the role of parent and community engagement in education reform?
Parents are the tip of spear when it comes to educational justice issues. Right now the political will to truly change the face of education is not solid. Adult interests and politics often come before the interest of students. Parents are uniquely positioned to advocate because they understand what’s at stake. Parents, guardians and caretakers only have one shot to ensure that their child gets a good education, so they aren’t talking about decades of reform; they are concerned about change now. They are also taxpayers and voters who should have a seat at the table.

What do you hope to be doing 5-10 years from now? What do you hope to have accomplished?
I believe there needs to be an active national grassroots movement to improve the quality of education for black, brown and poor children. The education reform movement today has a critical weakness because it hasn’t engaged people of color and people who’ve lived in poverty as advocates for educational change. I’d hope to help start a larger nation-wide dialogue around improving schooling.

Who are some of your heroes/mentors/people you respect whose examples shape your work?
Mahatma Gandhi is a large influencer of my work. His quote “first the ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win.” rings in my head every day as I think how we work toward change. I think Geoffrey Canada has opened up a world of thinking about closing the achievement gap for black children, which many people might have believed would be impossible in this generation.

What interests do you have outside of work?
I love volunteering in my spare time. Every year for my birthday I’ve raised money to support student programs at traditional public schools. For the past three years I’ve raised money for schools in South LA and Watts to attend trips, start anti-bullying programs and keep afterschool activities. We’ve raised over $25,000.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.