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The Education of Ana Ponce: A Success Story

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Posted on Jul 5, 2011
YouTube

In this still from a Camino Nuevo Charter Academy promotional video, CNCA’s Ana Ponce talks to a top student about her life and career.

By Bill Boyarsky

During this dreary age of war and economic hard times, I sometimes consider looking for stories that make me feel good.

This seems contrary to the usual journalistic perspective, which centers on bad news. Through much of my life as a reporter and editor at the Los Angeles Times, I embraced the dark side, digging into homelessness, crime, drugs and other societal ailments. But I also saw that much could be learned from more positive stories. Sometimes I did write about kids and teachers making it in poor areas and police officers connecting with people and neighborhoods rather than following the department’s style of behaving like an occupying army. By the time I was city editor, I had a real fondness for stories in the general classification of “succeeding against all odds.”

Succeeding against all odds certainly describes Ana Ponce, chief executive officer of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, which runs five charter schools, the majority in the most crowded, impoverished and gang-ridden section of Los Angeles.

That’s where Ponce grew up, the non-English-speaking daughter of Mexican immigrants who made a scant living doing odd jobs. After elementary school, her parents managed to find a way to send her to Catholic schools known for their academic rigor, discipline and safety. She then graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont, got master’s degrees from Columbia and UCLA and is now studying for her doctorate at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

She returned to her old L.A. community to show this generation of poor Latino kids what’s possible. We talked in the office of Jose A. Castellanos Elementary, one of the five charter schools. It is located in a fairly new building designed in a simple industrial style, cold on the outside, pleasant within its walls. Just east is MacArthur Park, and Ponce’s former Pico-Union neighborhood. These places are at the heart of a wide area where armed gangs battle over the drug trade and control of extortion businesses that target struggling merchants. The dominant, often only, language is Spanish. This is where Ponce’s journey from Pico-Union began.

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“If you live in Pico-Union, the probability of you going to UCLA is very, very low,” she said. “We in this area have a completely unacceptable dropout rate, where we have half the students graduate from high school. … For a college education, I believe we are looking about 9 percent in this community.”

The Camino Nuevo charters aim to break this pattern with intensive concentration on each of their 2,000 students. Charters are public schools financed by public funds. Like other charters in Los Angeles, the Camino Nuevo schools were authorized by the Los Angeles Unified School District. State laws exempt charters from many traditional requirements. The most controversial of these is their exemption from district-union contracts and work and seniority rules.

“Our high school has a graduation rate of 95 percent,” Ponce said. “We get 70 percent of our kids eligible for a four-year college. Fifty to 60 percent of those actually go.” 

Teachers are hired on one-year contracts. Educators who also serve as teacher-coaches evaluate them frequently. The evaluators and the teachers discuss each student. The evaluators also observe the classrooms and check on whether the teachers are preparing and following lesson plans. They use student test scores as part of their evaluation.

The schools concentrate on parents, important in an area where mothers and fathers, like Ponce’s, don’t speak English and spend many hours at their low-paid jobs. “Every school has a parent coordinator who teaches parents to be their child’s best advocates,” Ponce said. “The principal is supposed to be accessible to parents all the time, not just when there are problems.”

And a coordinator at the high school follows students once they are in college. “Her job is to support kids in any way,” said Ponce. “Some of them don’t know how to navigate the tutoring system, some of them get stuck on financial aid issues, and some of them have socialization issues. It is a huge cultural shift.”

The goal is to break the Pico-Union/MacArthur Park dropout cycle. “By having a concentrated effort in the MacArthur Park area, we will begin shifting the ecology to where higher education becomes part of the rhetoric, where someone dropping out of high school is not accepted. … The more kids we graduate, the more kids we send off to college, the more [other] kids start to see themselves in them,” she said.

But it takes extraordinary resources to do this, and the state budget signed by Gov. Jerry Brown will reduce funds to every public school in California, including the Camino Nuevo charters. This is happening all over the country, and the blame rests with state governments and Washington. Camino Nuevo is fortunate. It has a board with wealthy fundraisers who can persuade others of their kind to donate. But traditional schools and many charters are planning to increase class size and reduce faculty in expectation of the cuts.

I drove away from Castellanos Elementary past the crowded old apartments and houses on streets deserted late in the afternoon. A few of the kids living there will make it, as Ponce did. Hopefully more will do so than when she was growing up.

But the odds are still stacked against success as long as we and our government refuse to approve the taxes needed for future generations.


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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, July 15, 2011 at 9:23 am Link to this comment

Robert D. Skeels, July 14 at 2:20 pm:

‘... Truthdig is supposed to be a progressive resource, since when did cheerleading for poverty pimps and privatization pushers become progressive. ...’

For some reason the editors think it’s a good idea to buy articles from neo-con Wapo shills.  I don’t get it either.  I’ve speculated that their function here is to serve as objects of common scorn and derision.

Report this

By Robert D. Skeels, July 14, 2011 at 2:20 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Shame on Mr. Boyarsky for being a corporate shill and for not speaking with
social justice activists before cobbling this gushing, obsequious piece on one of
the most virulent corporate charter chains in Los Angeles. While taking money
from the usual privatization plutocrats, CNCA’s boasts of graduation rates are
pretty hollow in the light of their 94 percent remediation rates at the California
State University. TFA missionary Ana Ponce’s right hand man is a graduate of
the vile Broad Residency for Urban Education, and she’s pulling down a massive
six figure salary. CNCA corporation just stole a school in the Echo Parque
neighborhood under the so-called PSC, despite a two to one sentiment against
it. Someone has linked to several articles of mine on CNCA above, but the most
important are here:

Crafty Camino Nuevo Charter Charlatans
http://dissidentvoice.org/2011/01/crafty-camino-nuevo-charter-charlatans/

‘Social justice hedge fund managers’ and ‘social justice investment bankers’ at
Camino Nuevo?
http://dailycensored.com/2011/01/27/social-justice-hedge-fund-managers-
and-social-justice-investment-bankers-at-camino-nuevo/

Truthdig is supposed to be a progressive resource, since when did cheerleading
for poverty pimps and privatization pushers become progressive.

CNCA are crooks and charlatans stealing resources from LAUSD public schools.
They have a private, unelected board of 14 people and NOT ONE OF THEM IS AN
EDUCATOR.

Report this

By gerard, July 6, 2011 at 1:04 pm Link to this comment

I am sure if you looked around in your neighborhood you could find some exceptional kids in every school situation.  The nature of exceptionalism is to succeed in spite of limitations and difficulties. That’s why they are exceptional—duh!

The public schools take all kinds of kids, exceptional, ordinary and severely handicapped.  (liberty and justice for all, remember? and 99 teachers out of 100 do their best under many imposed disadvantages to bring all of these varieties up to the best general standards they can - often in spite of lack of funds, of quarrelsome not to say warring neighborhoods, of inadequately trained and insensitive—and now jobless!—parents, and of stupid, politically motivated school board members overburdened, and sincere but politically hasselled union supervisors.  Yeah, yeah.  I know.  I worked at all these levels at one time or another.

Charters are not the answer, though people interested in schools as a business may think so.
School is a kind of church where a nation attempts to bring its kids up to have at least a minimum respect for common sense, able to acknowledge wealth and poverty, black, white and purple, music and physics, basketball and grammar,and gain a grasp of
the Almighty Future with English proficiency and, if possible, honesty, self-respect and a future. 

“A mighty fortress is our public school system” - and we sell it down the river for a bowl of pottage called Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), and NCS Pearson?

No wonder we are in trouble!

Report this

By gerard, July 6, 2011 at 1:04 pm Link to this comment

I am sure if you looked around in your neighborhood you could find some exceptional kids in every school situation.  The nature of exceptionalism is to succeed in spite of limitations and difficulties. That’s why they are exceptional—duh!

The public schools take all kinds of kids, exceptional, ordinary and severely handicapped.  (liberty and justice for all, remember? and 99 teachers out of 100 do their best under many imposed disadvantages to bring all of these varieties up to the best general standards they can - often in spite of lack of funds, of quarrelsome not to say warring neighborhoods, of inadequately trained and insensitive—and now jobless!—parents, and of stupid, politically motivated school board members overburdened, and sincere but politically hasselled union supervisors.  Yeah, yeah.  I know.  I worked at all these levels at one time or another.

Charters are not the answer, though people interested in schools as a business may think so.
School is a kind of church where a nation attempts to bring its kids up to have at least a minimum respect for common sense, able to acknowledge wealth and poverty, black, white and purple, music and physics, basketball and grammar,and gain a grasp of
the Almighty Future with English proficiency and, if possible, honesty, self-respect and a future. 

“A mighty fortress is our public school system” - and we sell it down the river for a bowl of pottage called Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), and NCS Pearson?

No wonder we are in trouble!

Report this
Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, July 6, 2011 at 10:26 am Link to this comment

I suppose it depends on what you think a ‘good school’ is.  I dislike the present class system, so I’m not encouraged to find it being imposed on the public school system, paid for by my taxes.

I also wanted to take exception to Boyarsky’s rightist puffing.  Why is this person appearing in Truthdig?  Isn’t there enough of that sort of thing around?

Report this

By WarrenMetzler, July 6, 2011 at 7:45 am Link to this comment

I listened to the Ravich interview. And she is obviously a rare person, she has
common sense. But she isn’t against charter schools, she is against purely using
test scores to evaluate performance of schools.

I suggest that the current school dilemma is a product of pure mechanism that
has infected out society for several centuries now: if it can’t be detected by one
of the five physical senses it isn’t real. From this perspective test scores become
the only valid means of evaluation.

I suggest we first sit down and determine exactly what type of skills we want
our teenagers to possess when they graduate from high school; and absolutely
not make it skills that primarily result in one going to college. And then
determine what type of curriculum best produces learning those skills. And
write that curriculum, and then teach it. And let the teachers themselves
structure how they teach and learn; getting rid of the huge education
bureaucracies that exist on the state and Federal level.

I am sure that the wealthiest country in the world can afford a world class
primary and secondary education for its students if it choose to do that.

Report this
Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, July 6, 2011 at 6:21 am Link to this comment

The following are right off the top of a Google search about Ana Ponce:

Saturday, January 29, 2011
Banana Republic PSC Elections Camino Nuevo Corporate Charter Style—http://tinyurl.com/4ylploh

Monday, February 14, 2011
More lies, misinformation, and propaganda from wealthy Camino Nuevo Executives—http://tinyurl.com/3vmh7o9

I’m sure further searching of the sort reporters like Boyarsky are supposed to conduct, but don’t, would lead to many more juicy items.

Adding ‘Diane Ravitch’ (a critic of the charter school movement) and I got this, in case you want to be smarter about the issue than Truthdig or Bill Boyarsky:

Sunday, June 19, 2011
A Conversation With Dr. Diane Ravitch at Lesley University
In conversation with President Joseph Moore at Lesley University, Dr. Diane Ravitch discusses the effects of school choice and voucher plans on public schools, the new emphasis on testing, and a new market-based educational environment on community schools.—http://tinyurl.com/3ux6pzv

Report this

By 4progress, July 6, 2011 at 5:48 am Link to this comment

Bill Boyarsky needs to put his critical thinking cap on before laying something “positive” on his readers. In this case, he fails to recognize the destructive neo-liberal playbook even as he describes it:

“Camino Nuevo is fortunate. It has a board with wealthy fundraisers who can persuade others of their kind to donate.”

Well of course they’re fortunate! Wealthy fundraisers are serving on charter school boards all across our nation. But their primary goal is not to “break the Pico-Union/MacArthur Park dropout cycle.”  It is to destroy public education and public worker unions.

Note how blithely Boyarsky positions this statement:
“Teachers are hired on one-year contracts. Educators who also serve as teacher-coaches evaluate them frequently. The evaluators and the teachers discuss each student. The evaluators also observe the classrooms and check on whether the teachers are preparing and following lesson plans. They use student test scores as part of their evaluation.”

He offers no analysis of these practices. He should read “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education” by Diane Ravitch to discover how test score driven systems “teach to the test” and forgo a critical and comprehensive education curriculum. The “evaluators” he refers to make certain teachers don’t actually have open-ended and creative discussions with students, but instead teach only what will be “on the test.” Furthermore, teachers are never sure if they will asked to return, creating an unnecessary environment of instability and stress. If they don’t teach to the test, they’re gone.

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kerryrose's avatar

By kerryrose, July 6, 2011 at 4:03 am Link to this comment

This initiative only drains money for the public schools which the majority of students still attend.  It is incredible to me that public funds will be diverted to fund her ‘special project’ while the regular public schools will deteriorate more.

What is she really hoping to do as she drains from the public schools and coffers and leaves the majority foundering?  Why not revitalize the already existing public schools.  Sounds like another Rhee to me.

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By grumps, July 5, 2011 at 4:18 pm Link to this comment

Would it be that difficult to put the same amount of energy into upgrading the public schools that goes into these charter schools? Yes, she is doing a remarkable job without the constraints that hold back the creativity in public schools.
It looks like her board consists of very wealthy donors. Would they be against an increase in their taxes to upgrade the public schools? It is time everyone get together and decide that we have had enough of budget cutting and demand that washington dc get out of all the countries they are currently wagging war in. I really don’t think we have much of a future since China will probably own us lock stock and barrel.

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