In this interview, Dr. Melanie Lundquist shares lessons on catalyzing systems change in the Los Angeles public school system.
Over the last 15 years Melanie and Richard Lundquist have channeled more than US$400 million of their philanthropic dollars toward education and democracy building, health care, and environmental initiatives.
They are perhaps best known for their enduring annual support of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, founded in 2007. The nonprofit directly manages 20 non-charter public schools with the highest need and lowest performance in the Los Angeles Unified School District, serving 13,550 students. The effort functions as an innovation lab within the district, identifying and piloting scalable and sustainable best practices.
The Partnership focuses on strengthening key factors that contribute to improved student outcomes, including community involvement, parental support, teacher professional development, and school leadership. It has helped broaden access to gifted student programs, implemented a new math and English language arts curriculum paired with teacher training, and helped schools develop and teachers use effective and actionable assessment systems.
The goal is not merely to improve outcomes at the 20 Partnership schools, but also to spread best practices across the district and beyond through advocacy supporting the transformation of entire education systems.
Thus far, the graduation rate has more than doubled from 36% at launch to 86%. All of the schools significantly improved rankings on math scores. In some schools, the change has been seismic. For example, Jordan High School was the second lowest performing high school in Los Angeles. After one year in the program, it was the most improved high school in California.
Among their peers, the Lundquists have also advocated for reform of tax laws that shelter private foundations and donor-advised funds beyond the 5% payout required by federal law. They are also signatories of the Giving Pledge, vowing to contribute a majority of their assets before or upon their death.
I was going through a divorce in my 30s and I began to volunteer at the front desk at our community hospital. I was like one of those blue-haired old ladies but I wasn’t. I have always known in my gut that the best way to deal with times of trauma is to help someone else. Even when I was a 7-year-old, I went door to door with a March of Dimes can in my neighborhood. My mother taught by example. She would stay on the sidewalk. I had to go to the door by myself. My mom and dad always said, “When you leave this earth, it better be a better place for you having been here.” If I heard that once, I probably heard it 10 million times. I guess I was listening.
This is about taking on systems that are broken. First of all, we did it because it was the biggest challenge out there. We wouldn’t do it in a small school district. If you can do it in the most failing and second largest school district in the U.S., you can do it anywhere.
When we were deciding on doing the first US$50 million over 10 years, Richard and I had to look at each other and say, “OK, we are five years down the road, we’ve spent US$25 million and if it goes under, how are we going to feel about that?”
We both decided that while we would not feel good about it, we would feel much worse if we did not try.
Education is the foundation for democracy. Without a good, solid education, democracy is going to fail, which is where we are at right now.
The other problem was that Los Angeles Unified School District is the second largest district in the nation and had black hole failure written all over the place. And yet, I was educated in LAUSD and I got a wonderful education. When I was growing up, California was number two from the top for funding for education. And now, California is around 36th in funding, which is terrible.
Reductions in funding have affected the education system in so many ways, like the removal of the arts. Johns Hopkins University has done many studies on neural pathways of the brain used in arts and music. Those are the same pathways used to learn math and science. The exposure of young children to the arts means they will have the neural pathways available in their brains to learn math and science. We took the arts out and we started going downhill in math and science. We’ve taken civics out. It’s not there anymore. Nobody knows fact from fiction. We’ve got rampant truth decay in this country with media literacy issues.
At the Partnership, we knew our families didn’t have Wi-Fi. During the pandemic, our kids were going to the parking lots behind Taco Bell at 10 o’clock at night with their cellphones to do their homework. What better way to marginalize kids who are already incredibly marginalized?
We started working with some of the telecommunications companies. Since many of our families are immigrants, they didn’t have the billing history to qualify for service. So, we just made up our minds and figured out what to do about it.
Editor’s note: During the COVID-19 pandemic, a Partnership pilot program called “Students Connected” provided high-speed home internet at no cost to 1,000 families. In March, the Partnership and Los Angeles Unified School District announced a program expected to benefit up to 100,000 families with district-supported internet access, eliminating hurdles such as cost, billing history requirements, social security number verification, and inadequate customer service.
We started a parent college so that our parents could come and learn. We show them how to read a report card. We outline their responsibilities. If you have a second grader, we want you to read to your child for 30 minutes four nights a week. We have parent centers in every one of our schools. Parents feel welcome. They come and help the teachers. We disseminate information effectively through parent centers. Many of our parents have obtained their GEDs [General Educational Development diplomas]. As a result, some of them have gone on to community college and beyond. We are aiming to lift up multiple generations. I get chills thinking about it. There is nothing I can think of that is more gratifying in life. And when all these kids have their own children, it continues.
All of the solutions that we come up with have to be very cost-effective. They have to have capacity, scalability, and most important, sustainability. Everything we are doing at the Partnership, we are doing for US$852 per student. That’s on top of what the schools get from the government.
Our goal was not just to turn around a classroom or a school site, but to turn a district around and be a national model. We are on our second 10 years now with the Partnership. We are not going to fix it in five years or 10 years. There will probably be a third 10 years for us. But it’s OK. Slow and steady wins the race. It keeps me going. I will probably be doing it when I am 100.
In years past, philanthropy had a very different role in society. Today, it is needed more than ever, not just as a Band-Aid, but for changing failing systems. That’s because government doesn’t have the luxury of experimenting with solutions, but philanthropy does.
That said, most philanthropists are not going to stick around for 10 years. People are fairly impatient. If they don’t see fantastic results in two or three years, they walk away. You’ve got to persevere.
I want to solve the problems, partially for my own sanity. If I wasn’t attempting to do something, I would wake up in despair. You know, we’ve hit a new low in this country on respect and kindness and empathy and compassion. When I was growing up, there was significant collaboration. And it is still the most effective, efficient way to get things done and done right.