School & District Management

K-12 Chief Tapped as Education Dept. Takes Shape

By Michele McNeil — June 05, 2009 5 min read
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Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana knows about low expectations.

After all, as a 1st grader in California, she was assigned to the “Buzzards” reading group—the lowest in her classroom—despite the protests of her Mexican-immigrant parents that she could already read in her native Spanish. In high school, a counselor told her she had no chance of going to UCLA.

Now, she’s U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s pick for assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, in charge of implementing K-12 policy under the No Child Left Behind Act. She was nominated by President Barack Obama last month.

Her selection nearly rounds out the Education Department’s top leadership team, a mix of Washington insiders, foundation and think tank education experts, school district leaders, and confidants from Mr. Duncan’s time as schools chief in Chicago. Ms. Melendez and two other assistant secretaries were awaiting Senate confirmation as of last week, and a pick for the special education assistant secretary was still to be announced.

Duncan’s Team

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has assembled a diverse team of district leaders, Washington insiders, foundation and think tank officials, and Chicago confidants to help him manage the U.S. Department of Education. Among the key players:

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education; Education Week

Ms. Melendez got to this point in her career by vaulting over the low expectations of her early years—indeed, attending and graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles. She went on to get her Ph.D. in language, literacy and learning from the University of Southern California. Her career path saw her rise from a classroom teacher through district-level leadership ranks.

She got her superintendent’s job, in California’s 30,000-student Pomona Unified School District, through a nontraditional route: She spent a year and a half at a private education foundation before winning a spot in the 2006 Broad Superintendents Academy, which trains emerging district leaders.

“She had ‘rising star’ written all over her face,” Tim Quinn, the managing director of alumni-support services for the Broad Center, said of Ms. Melendez, who would not comment for this story because of her pending confirmation. Mr. Quinn said that as an assistant secretary, she would confront a steep learning curve, but “she is going to understand, walking in the door, the issues.”

Ms. Melendez, 50, fit the broad job criteria that Mr. Duncan had established for department appointments, which he says were more about character, drive, and general smarts than about possessing certain education credentials or representing a particular constituency.

In a recent interview, Secretary Duncan discussed how he went about assembling his team, targeting people like Ms. Melendez who came from modest backgrounds, had a passion for the work, and showed an entrepreneurial spirit—and were willing to take what was likely a big pay cut to work in a federal job. No education policy or district superstars with big egos were welcome, he said.

“If they’re scared off because they won’t make more money ... or if they wanted a certain job title, ... that’s not the kind of person we want,” Mr. Duncan said. “We want people for whom this is a real passion. This is mission-driven work. Everyone is taking pay cuts.”

Compatible Vision

Steering clear of job titles and traditional hierarchy, he reached out, he said, to educators, academics, and foundation and other nonprofit officials whose vision was compatible with his. His selection of Ms. Melendez for elementary and secondary education chief is telling: He was directed to her after seeking suggestions from Mr. Quinn, who had worked with the Broad Academy, an initiative of the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.

When Ms. Melendez became the superintendent of Pomona in 2006, that district was in a mild state of disarray. Members of the community, upset at the poor academic performance of students and an aloof school board, tried to recall several members of the board.

The district, 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, is mostly Latino. About 70 percent of its students receive free- or reduced-price lunches, and when Ms. Melendez took over, the district was struggling with declining enrollment.

“The thing that was critical for her was that she could identify the stakeholders in the community, reaching out to them and really forming a partnership, so we could get things done,” said Andrew Wong, Pomona’s school board president.

A profile of her done in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin when she was hired as superintendent mentioned that in her office, she prominently displayed a motto that guides her work: “Si se puede,” the Spanish phrase that means “Yes we can.” That was long before now-President Obama made it a campaign slogan.

Ms. Melendez further explained her drive in a December 2008 article she wrote in School Administrator, the magazine of the American Association of School Administrators: “I want [students] to feel the encouragement of adults who have high expectations for them, professionals who are skilled at guiding them to the doors of opportunity.”

Under Ms. Melendez’s administration, the Pomona district opened its first district-sponsored charter school. It is also planning to open its first science and math magnet school, and is developing academic clusters and academies for high schools.

To answer criticism that the district was not open enough, Ms. Melendez took what was then a considered an unusual step and posted online an audit critical of the school district’s use of federal funds for the E-rate technology program, involving spending before her tenure.

The key for her, Mr. Quinn said, was “the transformation of the culture into one of transparency, and the transformation of the belief system into one that believed that poor kids and poor kids of color can learn at the highest levels.”

She also made tough budget decisions: determining that, with declining enrollment, it didn’t make sense to continue an ambitious construction plan from the previous administration. And in February, she had to send out more than 600 teacher-layoff notices because of budget cuts, notices that were rescinded—as of now—because of money headed to California from the federal stimulus package.

The local teachers’ union was critical of how layoff notices were handled, citing confusion on notification and errors on seniority.

“These are peoples’ lives,” Associated Pomona Teachers President Morgan Brown told the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. “It’s reckless and it’s irresponsible.”

Ms. Melendez’ biggest imprint on Pomona?

“Accountability,” said Ramon Cortines, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District and a mentor to Ms. Melendez. “She’s modeled it with board members that have not always been in her corner. She’s modeled it with administrators, ... with parents and teachers and the union. She’s tough as steel.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2009 edition of Education Week as K-12 Chief Tapped as Education Dept. Takes Shape

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