The Los Angeles Board of
Education on Tuesday approved the hiring of Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana, a
longtime Eagle Rock resident who was recently tapped by Mayor Eric Garcetti to
serve as his education advisor.
As director of education and workforce development, Melendez will provide guidance on issues related to the Los Angeles Unified School District, according to the Los Angeles Times. She will also work with local colleges and businesses to strengthen links between education and job training, the paper said.
Until July 11, Melendez led the Santa Ana Unified School District as superintendent for two years. She served as assistant secretary for elementary and secondary schooling in the U.S. Department of Education from 2009 to 2011. Prior to that, she was superintendent of the Pomona Unified School District for three years.
When she resigned as the superintendent of the Santa Ana School District last month, Melendez caught a lot of people off guard. Why would someone who had barely started such a high-profile job want to give it up so soon?
The answer, Melendez told Patch in an interview, is that she wants to spend more time at home. The Santa Ana Unified job kept her in Orange County five days a week, leaving her with precious little time to spend with her husband, Otto Santa Ana, a noted author and professor of linguistics at UCLA, and with her aging parents.
Melendez was a strong supporter of Garcetti during his mayoral campaign “because she knew—in the way he and his wife conducts their lives—how sincerely he wanted to serve the children of the city,” Santa Ana told Patch.
It’s a mission that Melendez also shares, and her new job clearly has the added benefit of being confined to L.A. after four years of relative absence. “She has been approached by others for much more lucrative positions, but she wants to be home,” Santa Ana said.
Excerpts from the interview with Melendez:
Patch: What do like about Eagle Rock?
Melendez: I’ve been a resident now for 20 years. It’s just a wonderful community. I’ve seen it continue to flourish, with the restaurants and coffee houses. I attend St. Dominic Church, so it’s really easy for me to walk to mass and walk back. We hang out at Colombo’s on Saturdays because we love the music and the food. We try to go for pizza at Casa Bianca, we have coffee at the Coffee Table. We hang out here as much as we can. But in all, I’ve been gone four years—two in D.C. and two in Santa Ana.
Patch: What was it like to work in a school district whose name is the same as your husband’s name?
Melendez: I used to get teased a lot. People would say I’m Santa Ana squared. But it’s a great school district and I miss it a lot.
Patch: What do you miss most about it?
Melendez: The students. The parents. The staff. I was very lucky. It’s a good board of education—very supportive. They really care about kids, which is rare to find. I really admired their commitment to kids—and that’s what makes it so hard to go.
Patch: So why did you leave?
Melendez: I came home because I only used to see Otto on weekends. And I used to see my parents only for about an hour and a half once a week in Montebello—if I could do it once a week. In the 30 years that I’ve been in public education I have always put my career first. And I decided that as I reach the retirement age and years of service I would come home. I haven’t lived in this house. Sometimes I wake up and I don’t know whether I’m in Tustin or in Eagle Rock. Sometimes, when I came home on the weekends, I didn’t even sit in the living room because I have to do all these errands.
Patch: What aspect of education in California do you think works particularly well?
Melendez: I think California has lots of challenges. And that’s what I’ve been focused on primarily. While I was in Washington D.C., I visited schools in 25 states—from Alaska to Florida. I went to a school district in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where there was a lot of poverty. But there were teachers and superintendents who really care. What surprised me the most was to see the amount of money such states invest in education—which we don’t in California. We’re 49th in the nation in spending on schools. New Jersey spends $21,000 per student and the class sizes are 15. What’s available to students there in terms of technology is just not comparable to what we have in California.
It’s kind of like what happens to frogs in boiling water. If you put them into boiling hot water, they jump out. But if you put the frog into cold water and then turn up the heat slowly, it kills the frog. Similarly, we have slowly been losing funding for public education. I’m shocked at the lack of public support. There are no music programs anymore. There are no summer school programs. I’ve been a advocate for spending more money on intervention programs for children of poverty.
Patch: Tell us something about your younger days—with friends such as Alice Bags.
Melendez: (Laughs) Oh, it was fun. It was the 70s. Very few people know about my youth. We were all in love with Elton John. There was a competition between Alice and I about who was the bigger fan of Elton John—she or I. I actually introduced Alice to Pat Morrison [founding member of the punk rock band, The Bags, and a fixture of L.A.’s punk rock scene]. Pat was my friend at St. Paul’s in Santa Fe Springs—we were all Catholic schoolgirls. There was sort of a subculture of people who liked music and musicians like David Bowie and Elton John—the glitter rock in those days. It was fun.
Patch: What was your career in Washington, D.C., like? Did you meet Obama?
Melendez: Yes, I had a wonderful opportunity to fly in Air Force One. It was amazing—it’s the coolest thing to be on the plane with the president. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and I went to visit a school in Maimi Dade, and we were in the motorcade with the president. It was unbelievable. We got to be in “the bubble,” which is a Secret Service security term. You wear a little pin that gives you the ability to walk with the president and touch the president, go from room to room with the president.
The first time I met Obama was when he came out here and I was the superintendent in Pomona. He visited our students. He’s very comfortable with teenagers—because he has children of his own. And I also saw that in Miami.
Patch: What’s the biggest educational challenge for Latino students?
Melendez: Expectations. I’ll tell you my story. I had a wonderful Kindergarten teacher—Mrs. Silverman. Amazing woman. I met her in Orange County after 50 years. When I started [studying] I was an English language learner myself. Mrs. Silverman never made me feel horrible. She made me feel important. In fact, she selected me to be in a district newsletter.
My first-grade experience was completely the opposite. I was put in the back of the room, where I did the alphabet, while other kids who knew English were in groups in the front. My parents came and talked to the teacher, who lived around the block from us in Montebello. She said, No, she [young Thelma] belongs there—she’s an English language learner.
My parents went to the principal and appealed in broken English, and the principal said the same thing—Oh, no, she belongs there. So my parents pulled me out and put me in another school. Within no time I was in the second-highest reading group. I’m not a genius. It just had to do with expectations.
Fast-forward to high school. In junior year, after the PSAT, I went to see my counselor. Counselor says, What do you want to do? I said I want to go to UCLA. She said, Absolutely not—you’ll never make it there. I said, What about Cal State Los Angeles? She said, Oh, no, no—community college. Well, community colleges are great places, but I wanted to go to UCLA. So I went to my parents. They said, Well, you’re the oldest—you have a brother who wants to go to USC. Maybe you should start at a community college. We need to save our money.
I went to Cal State Los Angeles. In the summer of my first year I had a professor—Ray Rocco, who later taught at UCLA. After the first exam I said to him, Hey, d’you think I can make it to UCLA? And you know what he said to me? He said, Absolutely. So I went home, talked to my mother first and told her I really want to go to UCLA and promise I’ll get a job. She talked to my dad, and he said OK. I got accepted to UCLA. So, those stories to me illustrate what challenges our Latino students face. It’s low expectations. And that’s why I went into public education—to work on raising expectations of students.
Patch: What are your long-term plans?
Melendez: I don’t know. For the first time in my life, I’m pretty “family first.” And Otto has been very patient and supportive. He’s an amazing man. To me this is an act of faith and an act of love. I’m looking forward to seeing what opportunities God brings. But it will be something in education—that’s my passion, my calling.
Related: How Latinos Languish on Network News