By Aasimah Navlakhi
Anita Landecker isn’t an educator. She simply believes that you can’t turn around a neighborhood without good schools.
Originally from Los Angeles, Landecker became interested in community economic development during her time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she studied urban planning. Back in Los Angeles, she directed her efforts into creating affordable housing and economic development in low-income, working communities at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation.
“We were focused on affordable housing and affordable home ownership,” she said. “But nobody would buy into the neighborhood even if it was cheap, because the schools were so poor.”
In her 12 years with LISC, Landecker saw it grow from a small 24-person effort in Los Angeles to a national organization with a presence in San Diego, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Seattle, and Phoenix. Soon, she was overseeing multiple cities as the western regional vice president for the organization.
In Los Angeles, Landecker found it difficult to partner with large school districts to make an impact on the community.
“When I first started my work in affordable housing, people thought that housing meant large, public housing projects,” she said. “But we were really able to make a huge difference by creating high-quality, low-income housing in small infield lots, which became the best available housing around.”
The arrival of charter schools California in the late 1990s brought this parallel to mind. Landecker recalls a time when Los Angeles’ education system consisted mainly of year-round, multi-track schools that cycled their overcrowded, vastly immigrant populations through the halls.
“Schools, to me, were looking like large public housing,” she said. “Government-operated places where students were warehoused.”
Landecker started looking at charter schools as the infield lots of public education.
In 1999, Landecker joined ExEd, an organization committed to provide business and support services to high-achieving, community-based charter schools. The organization began with William Siart in 1998. During his candidacy for Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, Siart met with many educators who expressed a desire to start charter schools if only they had a better understanding of the finances involved.
“They didn’t understand the numbers,” recalls Landecker. “So William took some of his own money and funded an effort to better understand the revenue and expenses in public education in California, with the idea that you could do it better.”
Three days into her work with ExEd, the team started on their first charter school project.
“Someone I had previously worked with wanted to start a charter school for their community because they couldn’t get a meeting with the principal of their existing school,” said Landecker. “Spanish-speaking families in the neighborhood really wanted their children to learn English, and this wasn’t happening at the district school.”
Camino Nuevo Charter Academy opened in 2000, and currently educates over 1,500 students in central Los Angeles. ExEd worked to develop the organization’s initial charter petition, create its first budget and secure and finance its first school site.
Today, the nonprofit works with 60 organizations – including 10+ BES schools – in Los Angeles and San Diego, providing back office business services and facilities support.
“It starts when educators or BES Fellows come in and say ‘I need to translate my vision for a school into a budget. What’s the public money that comes in?’” explains Landecker. “We begin by taking the charter petition and translating it into a budget.”
Once the school gets off the ground, ExEd acts as the CFO and the Controller, creating five-year cash flows and financial reports, paying bills, and doing all the accounting. Additionally, the 65-person strong team also works on compliance, payroll, and retirement reporting. In a unique service not offered by anyone else, ExEd also provides monthly financial forecasts to every school they serve.
2007 BES Fellow Malka Borrego worked closely with Landecker when looking for a site for her first school.
“I grew up in the Pico community outside of Los Angeles as a third generation resident,” says Borrego. “I wanted to provide a high-quality education option to the students in this community, and I was determined that the school be at the corner of Pico and Union [streets].”
Today, Equitas Academy stands on 1700 West Pico Boulevard, one block west of Union Avenue. Landecker helped Borrego find the site, providing loans and upfront rent to make sure that Borrego’s vision became reality.
“We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Anita,” says Borrego. “She and Linda are my two godmothers. Any time, day or night, they’re there for me and for Equitas.”
Landecker admits that there are challenges in the work, especially when it comes to the finding and funding of facilities. It is also tough, she admits, to work in a field where the adults involved are so polarized.
“The challenges are many,” she says. “But I’m up for the fight.”
And, Landecker adds, the bright spots make it all worth it. Last month, Borrego was named the 2016 Hart Vision Leader of the Year by the California Charter Schools Association at their annual conference.
“It’s a big deal!” says Landecker. “Being there to see Malka receive that award? It’s an enormous bright spot. And we have a lot of high-quality charter schools here that are doing good work with kids.”