Most kids who grow up in L.A.’s rough and tumble Pico-Union neighborhood just want to get out, away from the gangs, drugs and lack of opportunity. Ana Ponce, who earned an Ed.D. in educational leadership at LMU, beat the odds by realizing that dream.
The youngest daughter of Mexican immigrants with no formal education, Ponce worked hard in school and drew a full scholarship to Vermont’s elite Middlebury College, a world away from Pico-Union. Then she returned home.
What Ana Ponce has accomplished since, as CEO of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, a network of six charter schools and an early education center serving some 3,200 students, prompted Forbes Magazine in 2011 to name her one of the top seven most powerful educators in the world.
But Ponce’s first teaching job, a Teach for America assignment in a South L.A. public school, gave her a good look at the education some kids receive.
“They weren’t receiving an adequate education,” she says, “let alone a quality one.”
Ponce believed it didn’t have to be that way. She remembered her parents and older sisters working hard in low-level jobs for little money. No one had expected anything more of Ana except a caring middle-school teacher who encouraged her young student to dream.
“Sometimes that’s all it takes,” Ponce says, “just one person who creates an environment where you can believe in yourself.”
Ponce wanted to be that person for L.A.’s inner-city students. She landed a fellowship at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York, earning a master’s degree in education. Then she returned and helped open a charter school, where she taught for seven years before joining Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in 2001.
Camino Nuevo’s motto is simple, but challenging: College Ready, College Bound.
“College was a foreign idea in my family,” Ponce says. “That’s one of the reasons part of the work I do now focuses on parents,” helping them understand and support their children’s aspirations.
She pours the rest of her energy into the students. Her blend of encouragement and quality education works. Last year, Ponce says, 92 percent of Camino Nuevo’s high school graduates went to college; 85 percent made it into four-year institutions.
“Sometimes students who can’t yet imagine beyond Pico-Union tell me, ‘But we’re not like you.’ And I say, ‘When you get a college education, you will be.’ ”