Peninsula Education: Sala champions local schools

PV Intermediate STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) teachers Scott Garman (l) and Kurt Hay demonstrate a thing or two to Andrea Sala about how STEM is taking off at PVIS. Photo by David Fairchild

In 1978, Andrea Sala graduated from Palos Verdes High School as senior class president. Today, as the longest-running director of the Palos Verdes Education Foundation, she’s raising millions of dollars to benefit the next generation of scholars

PV Intermediate STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) teachers Scott Garman (l) and Kurt Hay demonstrate a thing or two  to Andrea Sala about how STEM is taking off at PVIS. Photo by David Fairchild

PV Intermediate STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) teachers Scott Garman (l) and Kurt Hay demonstrate a thing or two to Andrea Sala about how STEM is taking off at PVIS. Photo by David Fairchild

It took 75 pink slips to dial in a sense of urgency to the community of Palos Verdes.

In the 2007-2008 school year, teachers statewide were hit with the brunt of the economic recession, and the Palos Verdes Education Foundation led a town-wide rescue effort with a campaign called Save Our Teachers Now. The PTA, the booster clubs and the school board got creative to find funding. Kids brought in their piggy banks.

Ten weeks and $1.5 million later, all 75 teachers had their jobs back.

Andrea Sala, the executive director of the Palos Verdes Education Foundation, was the relentless force behind the campaign. Now in her 14th year as the nonprofit’s head staff, Salas still refers to this event as one of the most rewarding things ever to happen in her career.

“It was like one big lemonade stand,” Sala, 53, recalled. “It was like a grass-roots, all-out effort in the community. I think that campaign helped people realize what the Ed Foundation really did, and how important it was to give.”

Sala’s office is situated in a modest one-story building, a few strides from the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District headquarters at the Malaga Cove School campus. It’s a historical landmark — in 1926, it was the first permanent Peninsula school established, before declining enrollment shut its doors more than seven decades later. Her window faces the vast, scenic backdrop of Malaga Cove. On her desk, stacks of papers rest alongside a computer and an unopened bottle of wine. Photos of her grown children Tyler, Callie and Alicia, all born and bred in the Peninsula, cover a large bulletin board next to the door.

“All my kids are gone,” she said with a wistful smile. “I have an empty nest. It’s kind of sad.”

Her oldest son Tyler, 25, works in logistics and lives in Marina Del Rey while her twin daughters Callie and Alicia both recently graduated from college. Callie lives in Santa Monica working for an event marketing company while Alicia is out in Nebraska, where she attended school on a soccer scholarship.

Sala’s foray into school volunteerism began in the 1990s when Tyler entered Rancho Vista Elementary School. She joined the PTA, serving as president for several years, and was promptly approached by the Ed Foundation recruiting her to join the Board of Trustees, which she served on for four years.

Year after year, she watched as new executive directors came and left. Finally in 2000, she gathered the confidence to step up to the plate. Her public relations degree from Cal State University in Long Beach, her marketing background and her devotion to providing the best education for her community’s youth — all the components of her background made her a viable candidate.

“I just kind of said, ‘I think I can do this job, give me a chance,'” she recalled. “And they did.”

The Ed Foundation gave Sala a six-month trial, and it’s 14 years later. Since Sala took over as executive director in 2000, the annual pledge has more than quadrupled, from $700,000 to $3 million. It’s grown in varying increments over the last few years, and for 2014, Sala is eying an ambitious landmark of $3.5 million.

Sala is the only full-time employee at the Ed Foundation; essentially, her job is one-part fundraising, one-part educating. The more people in the community are informed about the necessity of private fundraising in the public school system, she explained, the more they are inclined to donate. She’s still racking her brain to reach the 55 percent of parents who have yet to make a pledge.

“The ed foundations in California are all trying to raise more money privately because the public funding has really dried up,” she explained. “It takes a lot more than what we’re getting (from the state) to give a child a good education.”

The funds raised by PVEF translate to tangible benefits for the 12,000 students enrolled across 17 Peninsula schools. Half the annual donations go toward paying 25 teachers in the district, in turn keeping classrooms small. The other half goes toward funding music programs and library aides in elementary schools, as well as counselors and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs at the intermediate and high school level. For the first time this school year, PVEF kicked off a physical education program across all 10 elementary schools.

Andrea Sala, executive director of Palos Verdes Education Foundation

Andrea Sala, executive director of Palos Verdes Education Foundation. Photo by David Fairchild

Walker Williams, the district’s superintendent since 2006, said these essential programs would not exist today without the Ed Foundation, with Sala leading the charge.

“If I had to think of a handful of people that have made and kept our district successful, Andrea would be at the top of the list,” Williams said. “And it’s not just lip service. She’s out there working day in and day out advocating the best for our students and our schools.”

This perhaps explains why she undertakes her role not as a 9-to-5 job but an “all-the-time” job. She’s become the point person in the community perceived to have all the answers about local schools. She’ll be out grocery shopping on the weekend, and someone would ask her about the school board. Or she’ll be at a hair appointment, and mothers seek her advice on what school their kids should attend.

It’s not a job but a full-time duty.

The small-town feel of Palos Verdes is why Sala loves her community and continues to give back in various capacities. Since 1999, she and her husband Jim, who works for a hospitality company, have been volunteering with the Peninsula Committee Children’s Hospital, helping to organize an annual golf tournament and A-rated horse show to raise money for children’s hospitals in Los Angeles.

“We both really believe in giving back to our community,” she said. “It’s a good place to be, so it’s a good thing to give back to.”

For six years, Sala and her twin daughters volunteered in the Peninsula Chapter of National Charity League, a mother-daughter community service organization. She has also previously served on the board of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Chamber of Commerce and for nearly a decade was an active member at Sandpipers, a volunteer organization for South Bay women.

For Sala, the time spent outside the bounds of her office, whether it’s running errands or doing community service, all translates into learning more about her community. That in turn makes her a better director back at the Ed Foundation.

“I find that in Palos Verdes, there are a lot of people who do volunteer work,” she said. “It’s such a great little community, and the nonprofits here…we all collaborate and work together. We have different niches but often cross over because it’s such a small community.”

“Every day is different, which is probably why I like my job so much. I’m always learning.” PP


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