Leadership Lessons

Ana Ponce – The pride of Pico Union

Ana Ponce negotiated a life-changing deal in eighth grade.

She had the internal battle scars of a young, undocumented English-language learner, even at age 14. In third grade, she realized she was in the lowest reading group at her local public school, and she worked to catch up. In sixth grade, her new Catholic school held her older brother and her back to give them more time to improve their English skills. In seventh grade, a teacher told her about college — a foreign concept but one that intrigued her. She knew she wanted more opportunities. For starters, she wanted to go to high school.

The topic caused tensions in the family. Her parents were from the countryside of Leon, Guanajuato, in central Mexico, where children went to work after middle school, if they went to middle school at all. Neither of her parents learned to read or write. In fact, her mother’s signature was an “X.” When Ana — the youngest of seven children — was four, they came to the United States and settled in Pico-Union, a weigh station on the Latin-American immigrant’s journey in the city of Los Angeles.

“The first issue was that I was a girl, and ‘public schools were not safe for girls.’ The second issue was, ‘If she goes to an all-girls Catholic school, who is going to pay for her tuition?’” Ana recalled. “I was able to negotiate going to an all-girls high school as long as I paid my tuition, so that’s what I did.”

With an eight-year gap between her five older sisters and she and her older brother, the two youngest Ponces navigated the American education system together. He dropped out after eighth grade to work as a dishwasher at a beachside restaurant. “He was not required nor encouraged to go to high school because it was expected that he would start to work and contribute to the family income.” No one from the schools looked for him, either, she said.

Ana paid for high school by working 32 hours a week as a cashier at a local clothing and toy store. “[My brother] would pick me up from the library. When I stayed late at work, he would pick me up there.” Her father worked as a dishwasher, and her mother was a homemaker who brought in a few extra dollars a week from ironing, cleaning and caring for neighbors. Those early life lessons still help her as chief executive officer of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, a network of eight public charter schools serving nearly 3,500 students in the largely Latinx-immigrant neighborhoods west of downtown Los Angeles. At Camino Nuevo, 80 percent of its students enter school as English-language learners, more than 97 percent graduate high school and about 9 in 10 of them go on to college.

 

Mature, change-friendly and willing to be a pioneer, Ana became the first in her family to go to high school, college and graduate school. After earning a master’s degree in bilingual-bicultural education from Teachers College at Columbia University, she joined Teach for America as a kindergarten teacher in Los Angeles. In the mid-1990s, she was a founding teacher and administrator at The Accelerated School, the first independent public charter school in South Los Angeles. With 10 years in the classroom and a drive to help students like herself, she joined Camino Nuevo to serve families in her old neighborhood. All along, the professional learning continued with another master’s degree from UCLA and a doctorate in educational leadership from Loyola Marymount University.

But to accomplish all of this, a young Ana — who had to negotiate with her parents just to attend high school — first had to get to college. After she did well on the PSAT exam, colleges started recruiting her heavily, particularly a small liberal arts school in Vermont that was 3,000 miles and a world away from her Pico-Union neighborhood. Her parents did not want her to attend college, and they did not want her to leave Los Angeles. So without their blessing, she was admitted to Middlebury College at the end of her junior year in high school and moved across the country to join nine other students of color on campus.

“At the time, you hold a lot of resentment. You go to college, and nobody’s proud of you. Everybody is criticizing you, you’re young, you have all of these preconceived narratives of how your parents and family should act. You know, it’s just not healthy,” she said at her downtown Los Angeles office, which is filled with family photos and college banners that tell the story of her journey. “Nothing in my personal experience was done because they didn’t love me. It was actually done because they loved me and they cared about me. What they encouraged me to do is what they genuinely thought was the right thing, given their context and their experiences. I value that lesson deeply.” Despite these earlier disagreements, she saw the pride in her parents’ eyes when she earned her master’s degree from Columbia University.

In a 2014 TEDx Talk, Ana described protecting the “dimming of the light” of students. She says she works to help students like her brother who need more support and parents like her own who needed more context to understand what is possible for students after high school. She’s a big believer in building partnerships — with parents, community-based organizations and funders — to help students thrive despite whatever challenges they may face.

“The work is very political, and we have to engage in the politics of the work. Early on, I was anchored in the belief that good schools are not just about good academic preparation. Good schools are about addressing the multiple issues that our kids live through every single day,” she said. “As school leaders, as system leaders, we need to know that our kids don’t ‘live single-issue lives,’ to quote Audre Lorde, and that we have a responsibility to engage on the political issues that impact the well-being of our kids and families.”

As CEO, she is focused on the big rocks of the work that Camino Nuevo educators and staff carry out every day: improving reading proficiency, developing trauma-informed schools and improving college persistence among their alumni. But the politics of immigration and the stories of families being separated continue to impact Camino Nuevo’s families who fear the threats of elected officials intent on sending thousands of undocumented young Americans back to countries they often left as young children and about which they have little memory.

A week earlier, two Camino Nuevo fathers were deported. “I can’t even expect the kids to put one percent of their attention into school. That is not my expectation, and that should not be the expectation of anyone else. Right now, we have to tend to them as individuals, to their loss, to their grief, to how we’re going to support them,” she said, fighting back tears. “Our teachers need to understand that, and we need to support that and provide them with the training and the tools so they can have that level of understanding and empathy when things like this happen to our kids. And they happen on a regular basis.

“We also own the responsibility of broadening people’s perspectives. How do we bring people along when communities are changing? We have to create environments where we’re all human beings and we care for one another as individuals, as people — not what we look like or what we sound like or what language we speak at home.”

When she became a mom, it reinforced Ana’s beliefs and understanding of her role as an educator. Her son attends her local neighborhood school in Los Angeles Unified School District. “Now that I’m a parent, the difference between the haves and the have nots is right in front of my face. I live it every day with what my child has access to just because of who I am and the work that I do, and what other children his age don’t have access to because of their context. When we talk about leveling the playing field, we are so far from it. It’s a daily struggle to see it play out personally, coming into my schools and seeing challenges where we’ve barely scratched the surfaces.”

She is still the Ana Ponce from Pico Union who eats lunch at Lucy’s or talks about bread from Adelita’s. “You build those relationships and trust by the little day-to-day things and opportunities that are created to engage authentically. It’s not always about being at a microphone in front of a room but being able to be informal with parents.”

Last June, she struck up a conversation with a parent at a soccer tournament where both of their sons were playing. As the small talk moved forward, the parent realized Ana was that Ana Ponce. “Then she said, ‘You’re Ms. Ponce!’ It was great to be seen as one of them. To be respected as a leader makes me so proud to be with this community and so humbled to serve. It’s a complex relationship to navigate, because they hold you to a higher standard, as well. ‘You’re one of us. You have access, and we need you to stand up for us.’ That’s why I think it’s important for me to take a strong stand on the immigration challenges we’re facing. It’s important for the families to know that I know, that I care and that we are going to do what we can to support them. This is who we serve, this is where I come from. I have to be a warrior for them.”

Knowing your history also matters to Camino Nuevo, which initiated an ethnic studies initiative at every grade level — pre-kindergarten through 12th grade —to help students learn about themselves and their culture. About 90 percent of their students go onto college, but fewer persist toward graduation. “Our hope is that this will support our kids not just in valuing their personal stories but also in recognizing the contributions they have made and will continue to make in their communities. They can go into spaces [like college] that are foreign to them with much more confidence and purpose. For most of the kids, it’s not the academics. That’s not why they’re leaving college. They just didn’t fit in.”

Just before the recent winter break, about 100 Camino Nuevo alumni held a reunion in Los Angeles. “I had coffee with one of them, and she just made me really proud. I’ve known her and her family for 16 years. To see her as an up-and-coming professional with goals, with ambition, strategizing her next career move… She is one of our DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] alumni, and it made me immensely proud,” Ana said.

“It makes me so proud to talk with them, and they still call me, ‘Miss.’”

She urges them to call her by her first name. “Can you call me Ana?”

“‘OK, Miss.’”