Shortly after taking office in 2006, Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster invited the local school superintendent, Christopher J. Steinhauser, to his home for lunch. The newly elected mayor had no official role in the Long Beach schools, but he wanted to get the superintendent's support for a program Foster proposed to prepare high school students for careers in the fast-growing building industry.
During that first meeting, the superintendent and the mayor talked more than they ate, Steinhauser recalled, and agreed to create the ACE Academy, which opened last year on an existing high school campus. The academy offers students job training and hands-on experience in architecture, construction and engineering along with other rigorous high school course work. It seeks to prepare students for apprenticeship programs after graduation and careers in architecture and engineering.
"With the roundtable, we can encourage more effective governance by amplifying the voices of the people who run our cities every day."
– Anne Stanton, director of the Irvine
Foundation's Youth program
Steinhauser made the academic arrangements, while Foster lined up support from the building trades and began raising the $500,000 in private donations he'd promised to help pay for the new academy. "This program worked remarkably well," Foster said. "We have 54 students now, and we will have more than 400 students over a four-year period."
It was innovative partnerships like this that helped earn Long Beach Unified School District the $1 million Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2003. Its partnership with the mayor also made Long Beach the choice for the inaugural meeting of the California Mayors' Education Roundtable, a forum for mayors from the state's largest cities to discuss education issues and increase their leadership role in their local schools.
The roundtable, organized by WestEd and funded with a $300,000, three-year grant from The James Irvine Foundation, will bring together the state's urban mayors at least twice a year to discuss common problems, hear about lessons learned and best practices, and consider new strategies and approaches for education in their cities.
"We have huge expectations for this group," said Glen H. Harvey, CEO of WestEd, a national education research, development and service agency. "We are all deeply committed to the belief that all children should have the opportunity to thrive in our communities. Without the mayors and all the major policymakers working together, that change is not going to happen."
The roundtable's first meeting, on November 16, drew mayors and representatives from 11 of the state's largest cities. Participants shared their own methods for working with local school officials and considered potential solutions to the educational challenges the cities share.
Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard, for example, discussed the city's efforts to establish partnerships with the local school superintendent and Board of Education by partnering on business practices and developing joint-use projects. Kitty Kelly Epstein, Oakland's director of education, described how her city had helped the local school district recruit teachers who lived in Oakland by establishing a recruitment drive.
The mayors' discussion is getting underway as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger begins to develop his 2008 agenda for what he promises will be the "Year of Education." The roundtable issued a statement at its meeting, signed by 14 mayors, that calls for working with school leaders to increase "educational attainment" and provide "integrated and comprehensive support for youth."
As part of the statement, the mayors agreed to examine strategies to increase flexibility in the use of state and local funds and to encourage partnerships and joint ventures. Above all, they called for "reframing the vision for educational and school improvement" to create more comprehensive policies, programs and practices to improve opportunities for youth.
"Mayors are held accountable for the health and well-being of their communities, and our schools play an integral role in that," said San Bernardino Mayor Patrick J. Morris. "We can be major players on this stage of advocating for our urban school districts. But their needs are great, and their challenges are almost incomprehensible."
Among the many challenges cited by the mayors are the high drop-out rates, achievement gaps, declining enrollments and education funding constraints.
Among the potential solutions they explored at their first roundtable meeting were greater flexibility in the use of public money for schools, expansion of charter schools, improved school governance, energized career and technical education and universal preschool. They promised further discussion to set common priorities for their future activities.
They also reiterated the need to break down the walls between the schools and the cities to create more opportunities for youth.
California Secretary of Education David Long told the group that government has been "very good at building silos" for education and local and state government. "What we are about today is putting doors and windows in your silos and our silos," he said. "This conversation is about children. When we stay focused on that, sometimes the obstacles fall away."
Gavin Payne, California's chief deputy superintendent for public instruction, agreed and added that "in this era of reduced resources, these silos are a killer." He said that the schools could work with the mayors to stretch their resources by combining them, as some schools and cities have done by sharing school gyms and city park space.
Long offered to hold the next California Mayors' Education Roundtable meeting in Sacramento, and the mayors agreed to work out an agenda for that meeting. Several voiced interest in bringing their local school superintendents or school board presidents to help build that partnership and to lobby the governor and lawmakers to improve educational opportunities for California's young people.
Anne Stanton, Youth program director for the Irvine Foundation, said that by combining forces, California's mayors can increase their collective capacity to influence education policy at the state level. "With the roundtable, we can encourage more effective governance by amplifying the voices of the people who run our cities every day," Stanton said. "The mayors' perspective is so critical to resolving the many educational challenges we face in California."