One of Emilio Pack's most vivid childhood memories is that of his Cuban immigrant single mom, desperate to hold together her extended family amid the poverty and street violence that gripped their chosen new city, performing illegal dentistry in the bathroom of their crowded Elysian Park home.
To young Emilio, it was thrilling and heroic. His mom had been a respected dentist in Cuba, "but of course she couldn't practice here without the right degree." Her crimes seemed a mere trifle in an L.A. neighborhood overrun by armed gangs.
Appalled by the failing Elysian Park schools, where Los Angeles Unified School District teachers union leaders took the firm position that adults couldn't teach proper math and reading until poverty itself was beaten, the Pack family plotted another escape — to wealthy San Marino, 25 minutes away.
"My family rallied around me, quite frankly, and pooled their money to buy us a modest home in 1974" in one of America's richest suburbs, with an enviable school system and exceptional teachers. San Marino's teachers nurtured the teenager's "crazy dream to become a sports psychologist." Instead, at 21, his studies at Loyola University pointed him in a different direction.
"I realized then, I wanted to work with kids," he says.
Yet again Pack found himself inside disastrous public schools, first as a social worker, then a counselor. By 2000, he had risen to assistant principal in Inglewood when, he recalls, "I heard of this Green Dot group of schools that had a new idea for the kids, and this guy Steve Barr, and I met him and the other legends of L.A. school reform."
One of them, Judy Burton, asked him, "Do you want to start your own school — you find the building, you buy your own trash cans?" So Pack helped to open four charter schools under the banner Alliance College-Ready Public Schools.
He noticed that the trouble in schools was wrongly blamed on the children's poverty. What he saw was unpreparedness — among the principals and teachers. Pack scoured L.A. for talent, training educators, and had an aha! moment: "Are these adults able to connect with students in a really genuine way so kids start believing in themselves? I don't know that you can teach adults that. So I don't hire teachers. I hire people who love kids and happen to be teachers."
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Alliance's Dr. Olga Mohan High School, founded by Pack and his educator wife, earned nearly 900 on California's API tests, making it LAUSD's third-ranked top-performing school.
Pack now directs Math and Science College Preparatory and Crown Preparatory Academy, two charter schools whose minority students focus on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. Yes, the parents work long hours. Yes, they speak mostly Spanish and it's noisy at home — the tired excuses of a brittle system. Yet these children easily compete with middle-class kids.
"Our ninth-grade students come to us far behind, and just a year and a half later they're outperforming the national average," Pack says. "And their parents? They're thrilled. They're just thrilled."