Thursday, October 29, 2009

SUMMER AT SCHOOL: "My decision to work for a school district this summer was, in part, a decision to perform within a familiar terrain but in a different sphere"

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By Alejandro Tinajero | Business Week

Summer Internship 

October 29, 2009, 1:37PM EST -- My summer began and ended with street protests that clogged traffic that frustrated Angeleno commuters and delayed downtown bus schedules, thus attracting the local and national media. All throughout the summer, my internship with the chief of public schools [superintendent] of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second-largest public school district in the country, maintained a sense of urgency and caused change from the top, despite the hullabaloo going on around us.

Before I get into the details of my summer projects, I want to say that the opportunity to work at LAUSD was made possible by my participation with Education Pioneers (EP), an organization dedicated to reforming public education in urban settings by providing its "fellows" — graduate students from diverse backgrounds—an opportunity to work with an education organization on projects that fit each fellow's unique talents and abilities in a managerial setting. For more information about the organization and to learn more about the selection process, please visit

From the beginning, I made it clear to my friends at EP that I wanted to work with a public school district. Coming to business school with a background in education, I knew that school districts, especially the larger ones, have challenges equal to or more profound than those found in private-sector companies. My decision to work for a school district this summer was, in part, a decision to perform within a familiar terrain but in a different sphere.

Winning Over Longtime Employees

LAUSD has the largest school construction program in the country (it is opening 51 new schools in the next three years). As a result, it is losing student enrollment and "income," yet it is among the first districts in the country to heed the call for education reforms as urged by President Barack Obama. Evidence of this was the passage of a resolution by the school board on the last day of my internship to form partnerships with outside operators, including charter schools, to run the new schools and about 200 other underperforming campuses.

I worked on two separate projects. The first fell under the banner of operations. Of the two projects, this was the most frustrating and, paradoxically, the most rewarding. My task was to create and implement a strategic operations review process for key LAUSD departments, such as Procurement, Transportation, and Payroll. The most challenging part of this project was winning over longtime LAUSD employees who were set on doing business as usual by helping them to think of more effective and/or efficient ways of doing business for the benefit of their customers—schools, students, and LAUSD staff.

The second project involved the above mentioned school reform resolution, as it was often called by local leaders and the media. My task was to create the process by which the resolution was going to be implemented, from application requirements to how many community information meetings and what selection criteria should be used to select the winning applications, among other matters.

A New Skill Set

From day one, I was, in the words of my father, playing in the big leagues. More than once a week, I sat in on meetings with Superintendent Ramon Cortines, an experienced educator who has been at the head of some of the largest school districts in the country, including New York City, San Francisco, and San Jose, and his leadership team. My responsibilities were attached to tight deadlines and demanding expectations, and the results of my work had a life of their own after I turned over each project. On more than one occasion, my work followed me home.

There were three other EP fellows at LAUSD, each working within a different department. I worked for the superintendent, and the other three worked for the chief operating officer, chief academic officer, and chief financial officer, respectively. I often worked with fellows in the operations and finance divisions, who were MBA students like me. I was the only one who split my time working on two projects while the others worked on one project each for 10 weeks.

With this experience behind me, I believe I can tackle new challenges in education, a comfort zone of mine, by using a newly acquired skill set.

Alejandro Tinajero is a member of the UCLA Anderson full-time MBA class of 2010.

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