From principal to Partnership, Joan Sullivan sees good leadership as the key to success for low-performing schools
Mike Szymanski | February 21, 2018
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Joan Sullivan walked into a tough crowd at 20th Street Elementary School in South Los Angeles in May 2016. Three dozen teachers and staff in yellow spirit shirts stood at the back of the room, most of them with their arms crossed, while in the audience nearly 200 parents with their children sat divided, holding signs like “Don’t privatize our schools” and “Teach my children to read.”
A majority of the parents had signed a petition calling for a “parent trigger,” which allows parents to take control of a failing campus through the state’s Parent Empowerment Act. As a compromise, Superintendent Michelle King asked Sullivan, the CEO of Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, to address the parents and teachers, laying out what the organization could offer if it stepped in to lead the school.
“That was a really intense meeting,” Sullivan recalled. “I remember feeling it was an extremely tricky situation there, with all groups feeling a deep sense of investment in the community and no common ground.”
It turned out that parents and teachers on all sides liked the tall, thin woman with the short-cropped hair who was presenting this new school model. Sullivan talked about curriculum successes at neighboring schools and how this wasn’t simply an infusion of one-time funding or a staff shake-up. They trusted her presentation, and a parent trigger lawsuit was averted. Now, two years after the Partnership added 20th Street to its slate of LA schools, all teachers and staff remain.
“We liked her, she seemed like a strong leader, and we believed she would bring much-needed change to the school,” said Omar Calvillo, one of the parents who initiated the parent trigger. “People are happy.”
The Partnership worked with Mario Garcielita, the principal who had been brought in that year by the district to address the parents’ concerns. It held a weeklong summer training and planning session for teachers, paid for by the Partnership. And some teachers got an additional stipend to attend more intensive leadership training.
Almost exactly a year later, Sullivan and the district opened the school’s first parent center with a bank of new computers. Murals were designed and painted by students, a full-time physical education coach was hired, and families and staff were embracing the Partnership’s role.
“At 20th Street, there was a lot of trepidation about our coming in, and we didn’t change a single teacher, yet things changed,” Sullivan said. “We have the same students, the same teachers, the same parents, the same community, the same neighborhood, and we’re seeing growth now two years running. It’s a very cohesive and capable staff.”
Garcielita credits Sullivan and the Partnership. He said 80 percent of the K-2 students are meeting literacy benchmarks — up from 35 percent before he started there — the computer ratio is 1-to-1 for upper grades, and community partners have risen from seven to 25. They have also held 110 workshops at the school for parents in the past year. And the school saw a 19 percentage point increase in the number of students proficient in math on state tests last year, the largest increase in the whole district.
“I am not satisfied, we need to do more, but we do need to celebrate some of our successes,” Garcielita said. “I credit the Partnership with helping me in my growth as a school leader through their extensive trainings. The collaboration between the district and the Partnership is working well.”
Sullivan, 44, has become a well-known and well-liked feature in Los Angeles education. She gets praise from all factions of the often-divided LA Unified school board, and her 18 schools — once the lowest-performing in the district and the state — are showing strong growth. Her name is repeatedly brought up as LA Unified seeks a new superintendent.
“It is incredibly humbling to have one’s name mentioned for a position as important as superintendent of LAUSD, because my life’s work has been in large urban districts,” Sullivan said. “But the district needs to be truly deliberative about this decision. Whoever is the next superintendent will ideally be there long enough to build a vision with a broad base of constituents and see it through over a decade or more.”
Marshall Tuck, a candidate for state superintendent of public instruction, preceded Sullivan as the Partnership’s CEO. “I would put Joan Sullivan in charge of any school in any district in the country. She is a strong educator, understands teaching and learning extremely well, and has an incredibly high bar for the kind of education all kids deserve,” he said.
Sullivan grew up on a farm in New Jersey in the mid-1970s. Her mother was a professional photographer. Her father, a former Jesuit priest, primarily raised Sullivan and her nine siblings. Eight in her family are teachers. “That’s partly an outgrowth of the values that my parents had,” she said.
At about 8 years old, she was challenged by her mother to read up to 50 books over the summer, getting $1 for each book.
“At the time it seemed like a phenomenal sum, so I read a lot of books,” Sullivan said. “I ended up becoming entranced with books and developed a love for the word and for literary adventures.”
After she graduated from Yale, she worked on New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley’s 2000 presidential campaign. She wrote about the experience in a well-received 2002 memoir, “An American Voter: My Love Affair with Presidential Politics.”
By 30, she had opened her own small high school in New York, the Bronx Academy of Letters, then came to Los Angeles in 2009 as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s deputy mayor of education.
A decade ago she married her partner, Ama Nyamekye, the founding executive director of Educators for Excellence Los Angeles. They are raising three daughters: Esme, Zola, and Asha. Even with their joint education experience, they found it hard to get their daughter Asha into a public school.
“It took two of us, who are as empowered and immersed in the system as possible, at least 10 visits to a local elementary school to get her into an under-enrolled, non-magnet district school,” Sullivan said. “That’s a personal anecdote, but an example of what parents have to deal with, and a fundamental access issue and opportunity for our district.”
She said that red tape and inconsistency frustrate parents. “I feel strongly that one thing that makes teachers and families cynical is having a parade of leaders. It’s important to have a confident leader who has a sustained focus over a period of time. That’s what people trust.”
The Partnership, Sullivan added, “is a hybrid, a third way. We are an independent nonprofit that has the latitude to innovate in a district context. We very intentionally accept the conditions of the district so that there is a genuine pathway to scale. We want to be where we can find solutions that can benefit not just some but all students in LA Unified, and most especially those with the greatest needs.”