Born and raised in Los Angeles by parents who were active in the civil rights movement, Marlene Canter was taught that when social justice is at stake, remaining on the sidelines as a spectator is unacceptable. It was with that sense of duty that the one-time teacher and co-CEO of a successful teacher training company decided eight years ago to run for a seat on the Los Angeles City Board of Education. As she nears the end of her two terms of service, Canter, who was honored on April 26 as the School of Education’s 2009 Educator of the Year, says she is proud that “I was able to stay unbeholden to any special interest group, and to follow my conscience on every vote.”
Canter began her career in the early 1970s as a special education teacher but soon concluded that her training, while strong, hadn’t prepared her to be as effective as she had envisioned. Suspecting she wasn’t alone, she co-founded Canter & Associates (now Laureate Education, Inc.), which became a leading teacher-training organization. After selling the business in 2000, Canter decided she wanted to make a difference in LAUSD schools at the policy level. She won a seat on the school board in 2001, and was overwhelmingly re-elected four years later.
Her two terms, which included a sting as board president from 2005 to 2007, have left a powerful legacy. As chair of the board’s Human Resources Committee, Canter led an effort that increased the proportion of newly hired teachers who meet the state’s definition of highly qualified from 64 percent to 94 percent. She authored the successful resolutions to ban the sale of soft drinks and junk food in LAUSD schools, making Los Angeles the first large urban district in the nation to approve such bans. (California and many other districts have since adopted similar nutrition reforms.) Canter has been a vocal proponent for ensuring that all parents have a quality school to choose for their children, preferably in their neighborhood, and was successful in significantly increasing the proportion of her constituents whose children attend their local elementary school. “These parents are now helping to make our middle schools and high schools what they want for their kids so that we can bring more of our families back to public schools,” she says.
Canter also conceived and helped to develop LAUSD’s Innovation Division, which supports the district’s efforts to facilitated reforms and create innovative partnerships. One such partnership spawned by the division was the LMU Family of Schools, a groundbreaking initiative to improve educational outcomes in LMU’s surrounding community through a partnership involving the university, LAUSD, and the seven Westchester public schools and their parents, teachers, and community leaders.
“I became familiar with LMU School of Education as the institution in my Westchester area that had taken a very strong interest in helping us to reform the schools,” Canter says. “LMU has stepped forward as the network partner for Westchester, and it’s been a very successful first year.”
Given her admiration for the SOE’s work, Canter says the Educator of the Year award is particularly meaningful. “I hold LMU in high esteem,” she says. “I feel very privileged to have been chosen for this honor.”