Parents and perspective fueled Cristina de Jesus' desire to help L.A's students

Cristina de Jesus had no intention of going into teaching, much less becoming CEO of Green Dot Public Schools California, a nonprofit that operates 21 secondary schools for low-income students in Los Angeles.

In her father's dreams, De Jesus would become a doctor. The Filipino-Chinese immigrant who would work his way up to Senior Master Chief in the U.S. Navy, along with De Jesus' Irish-American mother, a school teacher, enrolled their daughter in highly rated schools in Coronado outside their working-class San Diego neighborhood. The schools nearer to home reflected the local district's lowered expectations, and her parents insisted on something more.

Every day, De Jesus crossed a socioeconomic divide to access a good education, and this daily journey from one reality to another powered her desire to later provide excellent schools to thousands of children in Los Angeles.

But first, she would have to discover her passion for teaching. De Jesus was majoring in English at UCLA when she took a tutoring job at an elementary school.

"I was still unclear what I wanted to do and was doing a lot of soul searching," De Jesus recalled. "I discovered the most interesting and inspiring thing I was doing was tutoring elementary school kids."

She went on to teach English and history for seven years in the Santa Monica/Malibu School District and then worked as a principal and local superintendent before taking a position at Green Dot in 2002.

In July, the Green Dot Public Schools' board of directors appointed De Jesus chief executive officer of Green Dot Public Schools California, giving her the opportunity to lead an organization she has given her all to for 13 years.

"We work every day to change the odds for the students we serve," De Jesus said, "by working to deliver on the promise of college, leadership and life readiness for all."

Green Dot Public Schools was founded in 1999 in Los Angeles to provide high-quality charter school options for children in some of the city's highest-need areas.

"Green Dot had a vision of creating small, successful charter schools to help improve the educational outcomes for low-income, high-risk youth," De Jesus said.

In 2000, Green Dot opened its doors with just one 9th-grade class of 140 students. Today, the organization has grown to serve more than 10,000 students across 14 high schools and seven middle schools in the greater Los Angeles area. Half are re-envisioned versions of once low-performing schools.

Most Green Dot schools include the word "animo" in the name.

"It is a Spanish word that means vigor, mind, spirit, valor and the courage to overcome odds," De Jesus explained. "In a struggling education system where outcomes are most unequal for low-income and minority youth, Green Dot is founded on the premise that tomorrow's youth must not just overcome the odds but change them. This requires animo, and if you look at the results of Green Dot schools, you will recognize that the animo spirit is thriving."

De Jesus attributes her tenacity and passion to her upbringing and the values instilled by her parents. Her mother and father will celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary in June.

"When they first got married in the 1970s," De Jesus said, "my parents had difficulty renting an apartment and were often turned down on the spot because they were a mixed-race couple. So overcoming obstacles is woven into our family history.

"I think about the odds stacked against them," De Jesus said, "and how they are here today, with all four kids having earned college degrees."

De Jesus went on to earn her master's, but didn't stop there. After earning a doctorate in education from UCLA, she and her parents embraced and wept. De Jesus had become a doctor after all, finding her own way to her father's dream.

-Alicia Doyle, Tribune Content Solutions

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