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As the Deputy Mayor for Education in Los Angeles for the last three years, Sullivan was determined to keep Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s education agenda moving forward, say those who’ve worked with her — despite political and policy setbacks, budget cuts, and school reform fatigue.
And she seems to have succeeded — according to her boss, at least. “Joan led my administration’s efforts to improve public education in Los Angeles and has been a central guide to the Partnership [for Los Angeles Schools] over the last three years,” said Mayor Villaraigosa, who leaves office next month.
Her next job – as CEO of the Partnership – will also require determination. An independent nonprofit begun in 2007 that now runs 22 schools within the Los Angeles United School District, the Partnership was created under Mayor Villaraigosa but will now have to build relationships with a new Mayor and a School Board whose composition is changing.
Outgoing Partnership CEO Marshall Tuck has no doubts about her success: “Joan’s phenomenal. She has a very strong background as a high-performance teacher and a principal,” he said. “She’s extremely passionate about what’s possible for kids, and she’s delivered at all levels.”
One hint that she may succeed in this next venture comes from the fact that, despite her work heading Mayor Villaraigosa’s often-controversial education reform efforts, none of those contacted by LA School Report — not even those who oppose her and Villaraigosa’s agenda — took the opportunity to criticize her work.
Slender, with a finely boned face dappled with freckles and topped by perhaps Los Angeles’ most statesmanlike pixie haircut, Sullivan speaks in an even, thoughtful tone, listens carefully, and answers in a friendly but no-nonsense way.
Now 39, Sullivan lives in the Hermon neighborhood, in northeast Los Angeles, with her partner and their 10-month-old girl. She hopes to send her daughter to public school, when the time comes.
And yet, despite all appearances, Sullivan isn’t a longtime Los Angeleno; in fact she’s a relatively recent arrival.
After graduating from Yale, she worked on New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley’s 2000 presidential campaign, wrote a well-received 2002 memoir, An American Voter, about that experience, and taught Social Studies in the Bronx.
What she was best known for, however, is being the principal and a co-founder of the Bronx Academy of Letters High School, a notably successful school in America’s poorest congressional district.
Sullivan was a principal there for seven years; she also worked on the Bronx Academy’s umbrella group, the Urban Assembly, something of a model for the Partnership for LA Schools.
Like the Partnership, Urban Assembly included a group of small model schools in the South Bronx supported by both the New York City Department of Education and a mix of public and private partners and donors.
Sullivan was recruited to LA in 2010, where her role has included being the Chair of the Partnership’s board, focusing and directing the Mayor’s work on education issues, and advocating for education issues in legislative matters. (See the December 2009 announcement here.)
Normally preferring to work behind the scenes, Sullivan penned a 2010 op-ed in the LA Daily News (Why the education mayor wants a revolution) shortly after she arrived, touting a mix of Villaraigosa accomplishments including the Mayor’s $4 million effort to support reform-minded School Board candidates, recruitment of now-departed Superintendent Ramon Cortines, expansion of charter, pilot, and magnet programs, and teacher evaluation reforms.
A 2011 LA Times column by Jim Newton (The mayor’s hard-case schools) praised Sullivan’s work on behalf of the Partnership. She “manages this enterprise with intensity and a deep sense of mission. She is a welcome departure from the many education experts in Los Angeles who seem far too tolerant of incremental change. Sullivan is tough and forceful, and bracingly candid.”
One key to her effectiveness seems to be her ability to engage people—to make them feel that they’re being heard and get them invested in the process. Sullivan comes across as eminently reasonable, ready to listen to any viewpoint, and unlikely to take things personally. She may disagree with you, but she’ll do so in a transparent and respectful way
One of the tools Sullivan has used to great effect has been bringing together groups that were working on the same issues.
“LA has numerous organizations that deal with education,” said Kate Anderson, former LAUSD School Board candidate and director of the L.A. office of statewide nonprofit Children Now. “We’re often working together, but we’re often bumping together. She’d have us sit down all together for listening sessions.”
It wasn’t just setting up the quarterly meetings, according to Anderson.
“She would run these meetings with an incredible wisdom and an incredible ear,” said Anderson. “That’s a skill set that’s rare.”
Sullivan is determined to keep the collaboration among education groups going. In anticipation of Mayor Villaraigosa leaving office, Sullivan worked with the United Way to create CLASS, Communities for Los Angeles Student Success, a new coalition of education-advocacy and civil-rights groups.
There’s also a brass-tacks aspect to Sullivan’s approach, say some of those who’ve worked closely with her.
“I think she’s tactically focused on getting thing done, not getting caught up in all of the things that you can’t do because of whatever state or local obstacle,” says Bill Lucia, president of statewide advocacy org EdVoice, which has worked with Sullivan on numerous issues. “It’s the art of the possible.”
When Doe v. Deasy, a lawsuit in which parents sought to include student performance data in teacher evaluation scores, was in the courts, Sullivan’s office supported the parent petitioners in that case, by putting together an amicus brief supporting parents’ side of the case, according to both Lucia and Sullivan herself.
Some of Sullivan’s other accomplishments include her support of the Parent College program, a set of monthly weekend events created by United Way’s Ryan Smith and hosted by the Partnership which are designed to improve parent engagement.
She was also key in advocating for gifted testing for all kids in the district—previously, only those children whose parents requested testing were considered for gifted programs.
Sullivan also cites her 2010 success at preserving federal school turnaround funding for LAUSD when the state was threatening to cut Los Angeles out of the funding stream, and she also supported a lawsuit claiming that a massive round of LAUSD layoffs was unconstitutional because they disproportionately affected 45 low-income schools.
None of this is to say that Sullivan hasn’t seen her fair share of failures and roadblocks during her time in the Mayor’s office.
“This is a behemoth of a bureaucracy,” she told Jim Newton in 2011. “Change is hard.”
One example would be the failure of a bill to expedite teacher firings in the case of accusations of sex abuse or violence towards children. That 2012 bill failed to garner a passing vote in a State Assembly panel. It was strongly supported by LA schools chief John Deasy and Mayor Villaraigosa’s office, and strongly opposed by both the California Teachers Association and United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA).
Another failure of the Mayors’ office on the education front came in the 2013 School Board elections. Villaraigosa backed three candidates, and only one of them, re-elected board president Mónica García, won.
Despite its origins in the Villaraigosa administration, the Partnership is an independent entity from City Hall. Neither Garcetti nor Villaraigosa had a formal say in Sullivan’s appointment to head the Partnership.
According to those familiar with the process, Sullivan expressed interest in the job, resigned from the Partnership’s Board in order to enter consideration for the position, and was recommended and selected by the Board.
One of the main things that drew her to the Partnership, Sullivan says, was her desire to elevate schools of greatest need.
One of Sullivan’s top goals as head of the Partnership is to develop education leaders from within the schools: “I’d like to create an advisory board of teachers; our best leaders are in our classrooms.” And she expects to be there a while: “This is long-term work.”
Partnership schools will certainly benefit from the state’s new education funding formula, which Sullivan strongly supports: “People confuse equity with equality. If I haven’t eaten for a week, I should get a bigger piece of the pie,” she said.
Sullivan’s official starting date at the Partnership is July 10; outgoing CEO Marshall Tuck will stay through the summer to ease the transition.