Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana, the latest trustee picked by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson to run Inglewood schools, has the widest breadth of education experience of the five trustees appointed by the state to run the struggling district since it was taken over by the state in 2012.
She has worked as a teacher, a school district superintendent in large urban districts, an official in the U.S. Department of Education, and is currently a top administrator at L.A. Unified and serves on the board of trustees of the California State University system.
In this edited interview with KPCC, Melendez de Santa Ana says her goal is to lead the school district out of state takeover in four years.
Why did you seek out and accept the position of state trustee for Inglewood Unified?
I’m really excited about going to Inglewood, primarily because I see a group of people that are working together to make progress for all students. As I read through the documents, I saw that there’s been a lot of work accomplished. I know there’s still more to do.
There’s a wonderful opportunity to partner with the board, with the community members, with the teachers, with the classified staff, with the entire community, and organizations, non-profits to really strive for excellence in that community for our students, so that every child has an excellent classroom experience every day.
What specifically are the good steps previous trustees have taken in the last five years?
I have really liked the work in the past year and a half. I think Dr. Matthews has done a wonderful job; Dr. Brann did as well. They’ve been focusing on the budget. They have really, you know, tightened the belt and really made some very hard decisions and there’s still difficult decisions that need to be made. But I think that what’s really important is that they’re made by listening and to all the stakeholders, I think that’s what’s going to be critical moving forward
If the conservative estimates are right and district enrollment is down 600 students this coming school year, that may translate to $6 million dollars in reduced state funding. Do you foresee that you’ll have to oversee employee cuts from the get-go?
That’s something I really don’t know at this point. I really haven’t spent time speaking to people and reviewing the information with individuals who are actually there. And something like staff reductions, that’s something that I take very seriously and wouldn’t just come in and lightly say 'yes, this is what I’m going to do.'
What’s your strategy going to be to keep more students from leaving the school district?
In each district that I’ve come in to, Santa Ana, Pomona, I’ve always done an entry plan – I call it my listening, learning and leading plan – I would meet with, of course, the board and listen and learn from them, as well as our community stakeholders, our labor partners, I think is critical. I would review student achievement, visit classrooms, as well as review all the documents, the [fiscal management] reports, with the cabinet members, with the board, I would go over the recovery plan and see what works, what has been working. I think that’s all really important before huge decisions are made, and of course, working with State Superintendent Torlakson and his team.
In an interview, Tom Torlakson said that maintaining parent choice is very important for Inglewood schools. Does that mean increasing the number of charter school seats in Inglewood?
Parent choice, the way I define it and the way I’ve defined it in Pomona and in Santa Ana, has been about providing opportunities for parents to choose schools within the district that have innovative programs. We had different configurations in Pomona that we put forth and specific schools with career pathways, [and] in Santa Ana looking at configurations and academic pathways. Those are ways in which we provided choice.
Do you foresee yourself implementing something like [the system in] Long Beach Unified, where a parent can petition to go to any public school? Would you like to see something like that in Inglewood Unified?
That’s something that is in the realm of possibility, absolutely. I know we had that ability, it’s a magnet-type structure, it already existed in Santa Ana with some of the schools but that was something that we were going to build even further. I want to honor the work there, and learn and be able to understand what will work best in that community.
I’m really trying to work at ensuring that I don’t have a job in three years.
What do you mean?
I want to see Inglewood Unified leave receivership, in three, four years. It’s what I think is important. I think the district needs to run itself, the board needs to run and hire a superintendent and my goal is to do that as quickly as we can, working with them.
Does being Mexican American and going into a district where the majority of students are Latino help you in the effort to turn that school district around?
I don’t think I’ve looked at myself in terms of my ethnicity only. I think, whether it was in Pasadena or Pomona or in Santa Ana, it’s really about focusing on all the students and being open and respectful to all communities. I think that’s what’s most important.
The ability to speak Spanish, that’ll help, but I don’t want people to feel like I am going to exclude anybody just because of who I am. On the contrary, I want to be as inclusive as possible.