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She fights for society’s smallest citizens

by Andrea Bennett
Celia Ayala strives to attain affordable early childhood education for LA County’s 4-year-olds. (Photo/courtesy of USC Rossier)
Celia Ayala strives to attain affordable early childhood education for LA County’s 4-year-olds. (Photo/courtesy of USC Rossier)

By now, most Angelenos have seen the commercials of accomplished adults reverse-aging into cute children as they tell you that preschool is not just for kids, and high-quality, early education is paramount to academic, professional and personal success in life.

The woman behind the message is Celia Ayala, ’76, PhD ’93 CEO of Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP). With 38 years in the field of education, proven leadership ability and impressive credentials, Ayala is highly qualified to be the leading advocate for affordable early childhood education for LA County’s 4-year-olds.

And she knows firsthand how those early years set the stage for everything later in life.

Ayala attributes her love of learning and subsequent academic and professional successes to the highly literate environment in which she was raised in Zacatecas, Mexico, where she was surrounded by vibrant conversation and constant reading.

By the time Ayala entered the school system, she was far ahead of her peers. She knows that her early exposure to literacy and vocabulary is not the norm for low-income children, who hear 30 million fewer words by age 3 than their wealthier counterparts, according to a study by Stanford University.

At age 10, her family immigrated to City Terrace in East LA, and she was placed in fifth grade.

“It was easy for me to learn a new language in a new country because I already had solid skills in literacy, numeracy, and I had a lot of self-confidence.”

She excelled in high school, and graduated from Roosevelt High with a full scholarship to USC and initial dreams of becoming a lawyer. As a student, she began working as a second-grade teacher’s assistant at 32nd Street/USC MaST High School for the Joint Educational Project at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

“I found so many students who were behind, didn’t speak English, couldn’t read,” she said. “In particular, there was a little boy, Juanito, who took a real liking to me, and he hardly knew his ABCs. I think that was my turning point, and I thought, ‘I can make a difference working with children to make sure they have the skills they need to go on to college and become whatever they want to be when they grow up.’ ”

Prompted by this moving experience with Juanito, Ayala switched from pre-law to a double major in Spanish and sociology at USC.

During her senior year, there was a shortage of teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District. and Ayala was able to receive an emergency teaching credential. After she earned her master’s in educational administration at California State University, Los Angeles, Ayala returned to her alma mater to earn her PhD at the USC Rossier School of Education, where she became part of a tight, supportive cohort that included Latinas who were already making their mark in K-12 education and would soon rise to the highest leadership levels.

“Rossier is one of the best teacher training and education leadership institutions, and it’s the quality of teaching that takes place, but it’s also the networking and mentorship and connectivity that other institutions don’t have,” she said. “It’s a sisterhood, a brotherhood, and we’re all proud to say that we’re Trojans.”

Six years ago, Ayala was recruited by LAUP, which, under her leadership, now serves 11,000 children annually. The nonprofit, funded through First 5 LA, rates the quality of more than 300 preschool programs in the county and compensates them according to their ratings in the areas of teacher qualification, learning environment and teacher-child interaction.

“We’re hoping to change public policy so that all preschools are rated and there is an improvement process,” she said, adding that their rating system, which is unique in that it is tied to funding, is already setting the standard across the nation.

“The quality of preschool is our biggest investment, and not only educationally but economically,” she said. “[Economist] James Heckman will tell you that for every dollar invested in early education, you are going to get a return rate of seven dollars.”

Ayala said that, despite a national drop in funding for preschool in recent years, she is encouraged that early childhood education is beginning to catch the attention of policymakers.

“We are in a much better place than we were 10 years ago. Now, for the first time, there are political races that are putting preschool on the top of their platforms,” she said. “I believe that there is movement; I just wish it were a little faster.”

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