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The public charter school principal being honored today by TFA credits her mentor — frequent charter critic Steve Zimmer

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | May 2, 2017

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Marisol Pineda Conde


It’s not every day that a charter educator and a frequent charter critic converge to praise each other’s achievements in public education.

But Marisol Pineda Conde, principal of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy’s Miramar High School, credits her mentor for much of her success — LA Unified school board President Steve Zimmer.

“I’ve known and worked with Mr. Zimmer since I was in (Allesandro) elementary school. The thing that was always present from that moment through now is that I know that he has dedicated his life to do what was best for kids. From my experience and my community’s experience, I can say that his actions were in alignment to that,” said Pineda Conde, 31.

“Now, even though politically it may seem like we’re misaligned, I know that he’s coming from that place of wanting to do what is best for kids,” she added. “At the end of the day, that’s what guides his work and mine too, so I see alignment in that.”

Pineda Conde and Zimmer are both alumni of Teach For America, and on Wednesday evening Pineda Conde will be honored as a School Changemaker at Teach For America’s benefit dinner. Zimmer was honored at the event last year.

Zimmer, who is running for re-election in the May 16 runoff, has told LA School Report that charter schools exploited the budget crisis during the 2008 recession by creating more and more charter schools rather than improving the ones that already existed. However, as a board member, he has authorized more charters than he has denied.

He made clear that he does have an issue with the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), but not with individual charters. He has said he doesn’t believe CCSA is working for the interests of the entire school district. Yet he considers himself “a huge fan” of Camino Nuevo and the work his mentee is doing there.

“I’m proud that she chose to become a principal there, and the way she has been driven by social justice to make sure students who experience the things that she’s gone through can have a chance to achieve the American dream. So I’m proud that Teach For America is honoring her,” he said.

Pineda Conde’s school, also known as Camino Nuevo High School #1, opened in 2013 and graduated its first class last year with a 92 percent graduation rate, compared with LA Unified’s rate of 77 percent.

One hundred percent of the schools’ students earned a C or better in their A-G classes, a set of classes required for entrance to state universities, and 74 percent of last year’s graduates continued on to college.

At LA Unified last year, 47 percent of graduating seniors passed their A-G courses with a C or better. LA Unified does not compile data on college acceptances.

The school received a “similar student rank” of 3 this year and 4 last year on the California Charter Schools Association’s ranking of every public charter and traditional school in the state. Each school is ranked from 1 to 10 as a statewide rank and a “similar student” rank, which compares schools with similar demographics, including race and socioeconomic status.

The students at the school, which is near MacArthur Park just west of downtown, are 99 percent Latino, and 25 percent are English learners and 97 percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

“Marisol embodies the core values of Teach For America. She has made her mission to serve her community, to come back to her community and spend her career working with students in our most underserved communities. Her leadership role is very impressive,” said Lida Jennings, executive director of Teach For America (TFA) Los Angeles.

“Steve Zimmer and Marisol definitely represent some of the best characteristics of TFA alumni. One of the most important things that both have in common is that since the day they joined TFA they have not stopped focusing on students from the most underserved communities,  so they share that bond, that common thinking, and that common drive.”

That relationship between mentor and mentee grew stronger in 2000 when she joined Teach for America in Los Angeles, where Zimmer started his teaching career in 1992.

“It’s an absolute blessing at a personal level to have seen Marisol grow up … but also what she endured in her own life and see her transcend the challenges that she had to dedicate her life to public education,” he said.

Some of those challenges were growing up as an undocumented student. Marisol was born in Milpillas de La Sierra, Zacatecas, in México and immigrated to the United States when she was 3 years old, as her family settled in Elysian Valley in Central Los Angeles. Her parents completed only elementary school, but she recalls that they always insisted she attend college. She ended up at Harvard University with a full scholarship.

“It was difficult being an undocumented student back then while growing up. It was the Proposition 187 era. I was in high school when I talked about my status for the first time,” she recalled. “The vast majority of my students are Latinos, many of them are the first ones in their families with the opportunity to go to college. In that I see a lot of myself in my students.”

Zimmer’s mentoring of Pineda Conde developed when she attended John Marshall High School and he was running a community center in an abandoned garment factory where her mother had worked. The center served as a hub of resources, including a continuation school for students who dropped out of high school, and an after-school tutoring program was offered for elementary students.

“I was very blessed to grow up in that space with mentors and guidance from teachers like Steve. It was deeply ingrained in me to give back to my community,” she said.

Zimmer also recalls with gratitude those days. “I’m truly thankful that Marisol’s family shared with me their dreams and made me part of their family and their community,” he said. “Marisol understood very young the work that needed to be done as an educator. I’m honored to have played a small role in her leadership developing process.”

This is the fourth year that TFA has hosted the event, and it is celebrating 26 years of work in Los Angeles. Currently, nearly 800 corps members and alumni teach more than 65,000 students every day in Los Angeles. According to TFA’s website, in 2013, a Mathematica study found that on average Teach For America secondary math instructors led their students to academic gains that equate to 2.6 additional months of instruction.

Other honors at the ceremony include the Regional Changemaker award, which is going to the Great Public Schools Now Board of Directors, represented by Chairman William E.B. Siart and Executive Director Myrna Castrejón. Derrick Chau, senior executive director of instruction at LA Unified, will be honored as Community Changemaker, and Hae Na Shin, a special education teacher at Normandie Elementary School, will be honored as Classroom Changemaker.

*This article has been updated to add academic data about the high school. 

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