Spotlight

Combining Job With Passion

by THELMA MELéNDEZ de SANTA ANA

Imagine a job where you wake up each morning knowing today you might forever change someone’s life for the better.

This is the power of education, and this is why I became a superintendent. I want to make a difference in the world, and I know no better way to improve the future than by opening doors of opportunity for young people. I believe being a superintendent is not just a job, but a calling.

For many of us, it is an occupassion, what my friend and author Louis Barajas says is a passionate commitment to educate and enlighten people. Making a difference in children’s lives is the driving force behind every action that dedicated educators take. It is the key criterion for every difficult decision superintendents make. That is the passion that makes our often frustrating work worthwhile. It guides us through the difficult times.

Personal Impact
This passion is ignited in each dedicated educator in a private, personal way. As a little girl, I entered kindergarten in Montebello, Calif., speaking no English. Spanish was the language we spoke at home. But thanks to a caring woman named Mrs. Silverman, a wonderful kindergarten teacher, I knew I had all the potential of the other students. She never made me feel inferior. She awakened me to my potential, and I soared.

First grade was another story. My teacher had low expectations for me. She placed me among the Buzzards, her lowest reading group. There we endlessly studied the alphabet. We did this all year — even though I could read in Spanish. My parents, who were immigrants from Mexico, spoke to the principal, but he turned them away. So the following year my parents transferred me to another school. I quickly moved from the lowest reading group to the second highest in the class. Thus I learned firsthand what a difference a teacher and principal can make, both positively and negatively, in the lives of students they serve.

My occupassion transformed into the goal of having my students come into contact with the most skilled and inspired teachers and administrators. I want them to feel the encouragement of adults who have high expectations for them, professionals who are skilled at guiding them to the doors of opportunity. I want our district’s education leaders to strive to make a difference for each child, as Mrs. Silverman did for me.

I now have the honor and privilege of being the superintendent of Pomona Unified School District in California. Pomona Unified serves more than 30,000 students, more than 80 percent of whom are Latino, about half of whom are English language learners. We are an urban district 30 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, and more than 75 percent of our students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

We have serious challenges but face up to them directly. Over time our dropout rate crept up to entirely unacceptable levels. In response, we created and implemented inclusive programs to address the root issues that district personnel control, to reach out to and touch the lives of each student, and to work as a team to keep our students in school.

We have established academies and internships in medicine, engineering, architecture and mathematics to give students a clear career path to a better future. We are planning academies in construction, science and the performing arts. We want students to understand the expectations we have for them and to know we are there to support them. I want to ensure every student has the opportunity and support that allowed me to flourish.

A Celebratory Moment
We all have experiences that refuel our passion and commitment as educators. One special event for me took place in May. At Pomona’s celebration for our high school valedictorians, one of our students described how just five years earlier she was living in a small village in Mexico. There Maria wondered whether she would ever have the opportunity to complete high school.

Her family moved to the United States and she became a student in Pomona’s English language learner program. Her teachers provided skilled intervention and cared for her as a young person. They opened new vistas. She realized a bright future for herself as she became aware of career options she could not have imagined living in her little village.

Maria enthusiastically hurled herself into her studies, becoming the top student of her graduating class. She earned a scholarship to UCLA — the first in her family to attend college. Her dream is to become an American citizen and teach in schools. Because of our dedicated staff and programs at Pomona, she has been given the opportunity to attend one of the nation’s major universities. She will be a role model to her brothers and sisters, a standard of excellence, and she will let them know anything is possible.

I wish I could say all our students are treated this way and excel in this manner, but a brighter future for all our students is our goal. That is what motivates me each morning to push forward an agenda that is always student-centered.

Superintendents, and all dedicated educators, face hard times these days. As I deal with midyear budget cuts, last-minute changes in our state and federal accountability systems, personnel concerns and fiscal challenges, that is when I return to my compass and remember the children. I thank God for my occupassion. It is not easy to change the world one student at a time, but there is no more worthwhile job. There is no greater joy than knowing that when you are gone, the future can be brighter because you were here.

Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana is superintendent of the Pomona Unified School District in Pomona, Calif. E-mail: Thelma.melendez@pusd.org