74 Interview: Education Advocate Myrna Castrejon on Building Great Schools for LA’s Poorest Kids

See previous 74 interviews: Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former Newark superintendent Cami Anderson, former L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Professor Matt Delmont, who talks about how northern whites used busing to derail school integration. Full archive here.

Myrna Castrejon, who was named executive director of the Los Angeles nonprofit Great Public Schools Now in January, was thrust into the national spotlight last week with the release of the organization’s plan to increase access to high-performing classrooms for 160,000 students it identified as attending failing schools in poor areas of the city.

Castrejon came to GPSN from the California Charter Schools Association, where she spent 12 years in various leadership roles. In an interview with The 74’s partners at LA School Report ahead of the plan’s release, Castrejon talked about her guiding principles during her career in education reform and her excitement about coming back to Los Angeles.

She first came to LA in late 1999 to work on a school reform effort called Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project, known as LAAMP, a $53-million grant challenge program funded by the Annenberg Foundation. She now has taken the lead on the newest major reform effort in the city (read more about the GPSN initiative to aid low-income students across Los Angeles):

The 74: What do you hope conversation will be around the release of the Great Public Schools Now plan?

Castrejon: I certainly hope that people see how different this is from prior efforts. And I hope it will catalyze a new set of dialogue and conversation about how do we make this work. As you know, the plan is essentially one where we are landscaping our broad mission and how we will work. In spite of the many conversations I’ve had in the last four months since I was named to this post, we’ve really been taking stock of what’s possible of where the obstacles are and really setting a course. But very quickly this will turn to implementation and execution.

On the lack of details in the plan and differences between the final plan and the draft plan that was leaked to the Los Angeles Times in August:

First of all, that work occurred more than a year ago. Our landscape continues to evolve, as it continues to evolve moving forward as well. One of the things we’ve been doing in the last four months have been really to listen very closely and to talk to people about what they need and how they can see this work moving forward.

I think it’s important as we get more specific into execution … that we don’t completely bake things in isolation. And so, the lack of specifics I think, it’s very driven by that, the need and the opportunity for us to build this collaboratively.

When do you expect to see first impacts of the plan?

We will be making early grants starting now and the impact will begin when the work begins.

Specifically, on the school replication track, planning and developing new schools is typically around an 18-month process. Certainly we are already working with the district to begin to identify how we might be able to operationalize this. From our conversations with the superintendent’s office, we certainly want to begin the work in earnest this fall. I would expect probably within a year we’ll be seeing the first results of those efforts.

On the charter side, work continues. We’ll be looking for opportunities to strengthen the pipeline as early as possible.

How would you characterize your relationship with LA Unified Superintendent Michelle King?

Superintendent King and I have had an opportunity to sit down and chat very specifically about our joint efforts two or three times in the last four months. I definitely think the fact that you’re hearing similar things from both of us is quite intentional. It does represent a new way for the district to pursue amplifying the impact of what they’re doing. My conversation with the superintendent has been focused on talking generally about how do we see this playing out. Certainly the district’s interest in expanding the reach of magnets and other innovative programs that are delivering results for kids, we’re very much aligned in that.

Why this is happening now and why is this happening in Los Angeles?

It all comes down to the scope and size of the challenge. We know that when you’re looking even at just those 10 neighborhoods we have an aggregate of about 160,000 students who are still enrolled in schools that are not capitalizing on the full potential that those kids bring to the table. We do have a tremendous sense of urgency. There are great things happening across LA, but so much more work needs to happen.

One of the pieces of the story that is consistent throughout, say the last 25 years of school improvement and reform, is the scale of the challenge in Los Angeles is just significantly greater than practically any other area in the United States, and, therefore, the challenge and the urgency are huge. We do see this as an interesting new development, a different path for Los Angeles than has ever been attempted before. The “why now” is because the job’s not done.

We will continue school by school, student by student, making sure that we improve access. And access defined as access to equitable solutions for students.

Could you describe the shift from funding specific programs to the focus on the “whole school” described in the report?

It’s one of the things we have learned about how successful charters have really developed their very strong school cultures. We know that if you simply impact programs, that it isn’t the whole answer. One new reading program or curriculum initiative or things that don’t work holistically within the ecosystem of the school culture and the school that is absolutely mission-driven and aligns its resources, both human and material, to ensure that that mission is accomplished and by mission being accomplished, I mean student success. And that’s something that really works and what’s exciting about this is we have an opportunity to extend that theory of action, if you will, into the district.

The school board took a vote denouncing the draft plan. What have you done to reach out to school board members regarding this plan and do you think they will support it?

I think that the school board’s record in the past few months has really pointed the way towards great forms of intersection here starting with the resolution they passed around increasing the reach of magnets and affording some resource allocation to that replication strategy is certainly a point of great alignment. And that resolution strategy in May to encourage partnerships and continued investments in doing more of what works is also a signal that we are all pulling in the same direction when it comes to our intersection points.

Tell us about your background and why you took this job to come to Los Angeles.

I love Los Angeles. I am absolutely in love with the city. I’ve been in and out since late 1999. And I have been a veteran of school reform efforts in Texas, here in Los Angeles and elsewhere in California since then. I think that the thing that’s really energizing to me about the work moving forward is that it really is an opportunity to continue to build on the lessons learned from prior generations of school reform efforts. Every opportunity that I’ve had to work in school reform only renews my commitment to keep the needs of kids and parents foremost in every effort. There’s a lot about what we’re doing about what we already know has proven successful. Elsewhere and also even within Los Angeles, a very robust charter sector really anchoring what we know is true of Los Angeles kids is that our kids can do better when given the right supports and the right school ecosystem to really make an impact in their lives, and I’m tremendously excited to initiate this work now with the district as a partner.

How long have you been in education and have you always been in the education reform movement?

Yes. My school reform experience started in west Texas, right on the border of Mexico and El Paso where as a doctoral student, I came to El Paso to do my dissertation research. I literally stumbled onto ed reform. Education was not the field I was in. I am trained as a cultural anthropologist but have always been deeply committed and intrigued by the question of how communities act politically and publicly to bring improvement to their surroundings and engage in the political process. I intersected with an emerging initiative in Texas what was called the Alliance Schools Initiative where we were looking at community organizing as a really critical tool for school reform. I was on the parent organizing side and fell in love with the work, and that work provided me with the real north star around how to keep really closely aligned to the hopes and aspirations and challenges of low-income families as they strive for a better future for their kids, and I’ve never looked back.

Is education reform moving past a focus solely on charter schools?

One of the things that was really a cornerstone lesson for me was how fast the work can change, the work of reform, when it’s not anchored in really authentic community work. And where there aren’t important safeguards of autonomy for the schools that are doing the work.

School reform efforts come and go with superintendents and district board elections and yet, what we see can have a really important and lasting impact is when we actually develop institutions. Sort of what I sometimes term as “within these four walls” strategy.

I really haven’t seen too much work that has endured when it’s done top down.

And so I think that one of the things that I hope to bring to this effort as well is a really strong commitment to ensuring that the work of staying engaged with community and ensuring the people on the ground doing the work have the resources and ability to really realize their vision that that’s ultimately what’s going to lead us to greater success.

I do believe that a very important part of the charter success story has to do with the autonomy and the accountability. As we expand into this new work, we also know that success can happen in many different forms. We have to ensure that the schools on the district side that will embark upon this journey, that their plans for growth and replication and sustainability really are anchored in sort of a deep commitment of leaders, school leaders and the teachers that work there and their ability to magnify the good work that they’re doing.

What have charters failed at? What have you learned from charters and what would you say charters’ weaknesses are?

I prefer not to talk about it as weaknesses, but rather as remaining opportunity. I definitely believe you can never do enough community engagement. The reality of it is I think that remains a challenge for everyone, for the district, for charter schools, for everyone.

It’s not just a question of making sure the parents have the right brochures or that parents have “choices.” Choice doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t come with access. The fact there’s a school that perfectly matches your needs that’s 20 miles away doesn’t mean anything if you’re a working, single mother and need to take two buses to work.

We’re going to be working heavily with community partners throughout the city to ensure that parents aren’t just “aware” of choices but that we build awareness and demand for quality outcomes for all schools, regardless of what sector they’re sitting in.

What will the rest of the nation learn from LA? What is the most significant thing they’re going to see?

Certainly I hope that one of the take-aways from the work in LA, and obviously we’ll be judged by our outcomes and whether we’re successful, is in changing this conversation about what is a zero-sum gain around the charter sector and the traditional school sector. I don’t think that there need to be winners and losers because it’s not really, to me, about one sector winning over the other, but in kids winning.

I do think that given the scale of the charter sector and the opportunities ahead for LAUSD, it’s going to be a very interesting and broad conversation about how is it that we can break away from the old way of thinking.

How were the four areas of focus in the plan — community outreach and engagement, teacher and leadership pipeline and support, facilities and school replication grants — chosen?

It could have been 10 more or it could have been just one, but the reality is as we talked to people across LA and these are the things that we know that are impacting them more significantly in terms of their ability to do good work.

With the economic downtown and coming out of the recession and the paucity of school funding, we know that in many ways we may have lost a generation of young and idealistic teachers that were just beginning their careers. We need to band together and make sure that we are making teaching an attractive and valued and valuable proposition for the next generation of young professionals.

We know that school replication and growth can’t work without the individuals. We also know that charters can’t continue to do their work if they don’t have the right places to seat their students, and that is a multi-pronged effort as well. Facilities is a very complicated question across Los Angeles. We also know that this work has to remain authentic and tethered to the needs and aspirations of community members.

Are there other areas where we could be doing work? Absolutely. And maybe some will emerge as we launch into the work. For now, we’re simply being responsive to what people are telling us are their most critical needs.

What is your response to critics who might say because of the lack of details in the plan that it is still about the expansion of charter schools?

If you build an organization and work on strong fundraising and work collaboratively and you set out a plan and people still don’t believe you, I think the only thing that is going to change people’s minds in the end is going to be our outcomes.

How much have you fundraised so far and what is your fundraising goal?

We are continuing with fundraising efforts that’s a continuing evolving figure. To be really honest, the fact that no matter what we say or do, we now formed a new organization, we now have a board, the press continues to quote the figure ($490 million) from the planning document. And so, whatever figure we put out there is going to be the one that cements in people’s heads and we don’t really want to go there.

Can you get to an end-game where the needs of all students are addressed?

The challenges that are ahead of us, they’re not going to be solved by a single solution or a single source of funding or a single initiative.

What we hope GPSN will do is to carve a path that can augment success across all public schools. We certainly have no intention of being a silver bullet. And frankly, it will probably open up other opportunities, different avenues for other folks to do their own work. I think that it’s very important to have a clear sense of the challenge, but I also think it’s unrealistic for us to think we are going to be the single-source solution for every single problem that arises.

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