By Monica Rodriguez, Staff Writer
POMONA - Bittersweet is how many people describe the departure of Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana.
For many, it's painful to see her leave her post as superintendent of the Pomona Unified School District. The reason for her departure, however, makes the loss bearable to many.
On Monday, Melendez de Santa Ana will report to the U.S Department of Education in Washington, where she will be sworn in as assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education for the Obama administration.
Diamond Bar Mayor Ron Everett said at Wednesday night's Pomona Unified school board meeting that letting Melendez de Santa Ana go is not easy, but "it's the right thing to do for America."
She leaves a district "that has never been stronger," he said.
Looking back on the past three years as head of the district, she described the successes that came about through the collaboration of teachers, administrators, staff, parents and community members.
She remembered a boy who, as a kindergartner, was selectively mute. The effort of a caring teacher played a part in the child's speaking again.
She recalled a young girl who was an immigrant without English language skills and, with the support of teachers, went on to graduate as her high school valedictorian and enroll at UCLA.
Partnerships were built with colleges and universities to create opportunities for students. Another program kept some 150 teens from slipping through he cracks, helping them reach graduation.
Relationships were forged with parent groups, grass-roots organizations and clergy.
A number of schools have consistently shown improved academic performance.
"I hope I had a little bit of impact in the lives of children," Melendez de Santa Ana said. "I think there was hope in the belief we could make a difference."
It hasn't been an easy three years. Melendez de Santa Ana has faced the difficulties of a recession that has rocked the state's ability to fund education and a tense relationship with the Associated Pomona Teachers union, which represents district teachers, counselors, nurses and others.
After taking the recommendation of district administrators, school board members approved the distribution of more than 640 preliminary layoff notices in the spring.
The teachers union said sending out so many notices was disruptive to teachers' lives and the educational process.
After the Obama administration made federal dollars available to the district, it was able to rescind the notices.
"Its never easy to recommend cuts," Melendez de Santa Ana said.
As superintendent, though, she had to look out for the district, she said. What's done is done "knowing you are trying to do what in the end is part of your responsibility - being fiscally sound," she said.
Twice this week, teacher union representatives congratulated Melendez de Santa Ana on her new post. She was asked to think about the district and the impacts of the decisions she makes in Washington.
Melendez de Santa Ana has been described as humble, gracious and accessible, but also as a tireless advocate for students. That can mean pressing staff or government officials, and it can make people uncomfortable.
What she does, Melendez de Santa Ana said, is part of an effort to create better conditions for students.
"It's not about me," she said. "It's how can I get better so I can be a better superintendent for kids, to be a better boss" to the different people who have a part to play in the education of students.
Melendez de Santa Ana said leaving Pomona Unified is a sacrifice on different levels.
In her new job she will earn slightly more than $150,000 a year compared with her district base salary of $210,000, an amount that recently dropped due to a pay cut.
It also means separation from her family and from her husband for a time. Otto Santa Ana, an associate professor of Chicana/Chicano studies at UCLA, will shuttle back and forth to Washington as time permits.
Melendez de Santa Ana leaves the district having started initiatives she would have liked to have seen to completion. These include the reconfiguration of grades and efforts to continue improving academic performance.
But working for President Barack Obama "is a once-in-a-generation opportunity," she said.
Retired Pomona Police Chief Joe Romero said Melendez de Santa Ana's departure is a loss for the community, "but Thelma has a greater role in public service."
"If she can take to Washington, D.C., the same energy and zeal she demonstrated here ... whole school districts across the country are going to benefit," Romero said.
Melendez de Santa Ana will be "a one-woman education stimulus package," he said.
Richard Martinez, the district's acting chief deputy superintendent, and as of today interim superintendent, has known Melendez de Santa Ana for more than 20 years.
"What you see in Thelma is what you get. She's very real," Martinez said, adding that Melendez de Santa Ana is an uncommon administrator.
"Some bosses are visionary but don't have the nuts and bolts down," he said.
Roberta Perlman-Hensen said that three years ago she was among a group of parents opposed to hiring someone who had previously worked for the district.
The district had a history of disregarding parents' input, but Melendez de Santa Ana changed that, she said.
"She reached out to us immediately. She called us," Perlman-Hensen said. "She appreciated that making a connection to the community was vital."
Melendez de Santa Ana said leaving Pomona Unified will be difficult.
"I leave a part of my heart" behind, she said.