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Champion for Education

The daughter of self-educated immigrants, Celia C. Ayala ensures that Los Angeles County’s children receive a quality preschool education even if their parents can’t afford tuition costs.

Celia C. Ayala (B.A., sociology and Spanish, '76) is CEO of the Los Angeles Universal Preschool in Los Angeles, Calif. Photo by Phil Channing.
Celia C. Ayala (B.A., sociology and Spanish, '76) is CEO of the Los Angeles Universal Preschool in Los Angeles, Calif. Photo by Phil Channing.

Celia C. Ayala discovered her life’s passion at an early age. With a quest to contribute to her community, she knew what she wanted to do; it was the how that remained a mystery.

In her eighth floor office, Chief Executive Officer of Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP) Ayala sits back in her chair and recalls immigrating with her family to City Terrace, Calif., from Zacatecas, Mexico. She was 10. The youngest of eight, Ayala took on the role as translator accompanying relatives to the unemployment and immigration offices.

“They weren’t getting any assistance and I believed there had to be a better way to advocate for people,” Ayala said. “I wanted to give back to the community.”

She initially set her sights on a career in law, advocating for those unable to afford legal representation. At age 12, she had it all figured out.

Ayala graduated from Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles with a full scholarship to USC and immersed herself in her studies in USC Dornsife.

Then the unexpected happened. After dabbling in law courses, the political science major realized law school might not be the best fit for her. At a crossroad, she considered a profession in social work or education.

The answer arrived in the form of a second-grade student.

“His name was Juanito,” Ayala said, smiling as she recalled the student she taught at 32nd Street School through USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project (JEP) her sophomore year.

“He did not speak English, know his ABCs or how to read, but I worked with him for a full semester,” she said. “When he started to read, I realized I wanted to help children.”

Without hesitation, the now mother of two scrapped her previous blueprint and created a new one. Rather than fight for the underprivileged in a courtroom, she would be a champion for children in L.A. County.

Raised by parents who emphasized the significance of education, it is only fitting that their daughter thrives in the field. Growing up in Mexico, where preschool and kindergarten are privatized, Ayala’s early childhood education rested in the hands of her parents: Maria Carmen, a seamstress, and Aurelio Morales, a blue-collar foundry worker.

Every afternoon Ayala sat on her father’s lap and read newspaper articles line by line. At age 3, she was reading on her own and by 5 was ready for first grade.

“I am who I am because my father instilled in me how important education is to anyone’s future,” said Ayala, in the gentle tone she uses when discussing family.

Her career began in 1975 when she applied for an emergency teaching credential in response to L.A. Unified School District’s call for educators. The first in her family to earn a college degree, she completed her bachelor’s degree in sociology and Spanish from USC Dornsife in 1976. She later earned a master’s degree in education from California State University, Los Angeles and a doctorate in education from the USC Rossier School of Education in 1992.

Ayala’s career has flourished serving as principal at James Madison Elementary and El Ranchito Elementary schools and teaching at Stevenson Junior High. She served as director of curriculum, instruction and educational technologies for the Pasadena Unified School District, curriculum specialist at El Rancho Unified School District, and assistant superintendent for the division of children and family services at the Riverside County Office of Education.

Her success in expanding educational opportunities has been recognized on state and national levels. Awards displayed in her office underscore her dedication. She was appointed to the California Early Learning Quality Improvement System Advisory Committee by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009, named “One of the Most Influential Hispanics in the U.S.” by Hispanic Business Magazine in 2008, and received Hispanic Outreach Taskforce’s 2010 Educator of the Year award.

With 36 years in education, Ayala accepted a chief operating officer position with LAUP in 2007. Created in 2004, and funded primarily by First 5 L.A., LAUP is charged with making high-quality preschool available to every 4-year-old in L.A. County.

Promoted to CEO in 2010, Ayala is responsible for maintaining a financially sound and sustainable preschool system with the goal of serving more children. Much of her time is spent out in the community meeting with stakeholders, potential donors and observing teachers in the classroom.

The organization has spent more than $111 million to fund preschool services at 325 sites. More than 50,000 children have been positively impacted by LAUP.

“It’s invigorating to know that everything I am doing is making a difference in changing the landscape of early childhood education,” said Ayala, who met her husband, Louis, at USC.

She explained how her initial interest in law still correlates to her work in education.

“The word in Spanish for lawyer is abogado and translated to English it means ‘advocate,’” she said. “I am advocating by fighting for what I believe is in the best interest for children: a sound education.”


Read more articles from USC Dornsife Magazine's Spring/Summer 2011 issue