Medellín, Colombia, once known as the world’s deadliest city, has become an innovative global leader in economic development by investing nearly 40% of its $900 million annual budget on education.

Medellín’s Mayor Sergio Fajardo is leading efforts to build 5 new libraries, a public science center, dozens of schools, and cable car transportation lines directly connecting into the city’s slums. “Our most beautiful buildings,” explained Mr. Fajardo in a recent interview, “must be in our poorest areas.”

Medellín’s strategy is worth examining, especially for communities like Santa Ana.

In The Orange County Business Journal’s Answers to the $15.6 Billion Question on Education Plan, Chapman University economics professor James Doti reminds us where it starts: “ The fact that only 17% of Latino-Americans complete college in California compared to 51% of white students is something that should not be tolerated.”

Encouragingly, recent numbers at the district show graduation rates increasing by 11.5% over the past seven years yet Santa Ana lacks competitive wages and an educated workforce. We have low educational attainment, and the residents of this city are vastly underemployed. Students in our city need personal counseling to align them between high school, college and movement into the job market.

Overcoming these challenges requires the city to overcome its limited interaction with our local youth and schools. Santa Ana’s economic development leaders and education administrative leaders need to come together to create a strong and effective pipeline for local students to achieve financial success.

Santa Ana’s leaders need to facilitate a citywide talent pipeline connecting local high schools and college programs into local business networks, local industries, and economic development plans. Pipeline programs have astonishing results. The leading case study given in the Orange County Economic Development report was for High School Inc., a Santa Ana-based Valley High School culinary training program. The only Orange County program with a 100% success rate is Middle College High School, an AP program run on the Santa Ana College campus. These initiatives need support – and we need many more just like them.

According to the Economic Development Plan, there was once collaboration between Santa Ana’s three school district groups, Santa Ana Unified, Garden Grove and Rancho Santiago School District and the city called “SA2000 collaboration.” This partnership should be resurrected for a new pipeline program.

By leveraging relations with businesses, regional institutions, and underutilized workforce development tools, a large pipeline can foundationally alter Santa Ana’s economic forecast and permanently alter the life trajectories of our youth.

Education is the first step in fighting violence. In Medellín, libraries are rising on the same land where paramilitary soldiers once fought and died. Such a strategy is a powerful message of hope and dignity. “Fajardo is making a long-term wager by carving out a foothold for the state in areas that were neglected for years,” said Aldo Civico, Director for the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University in a recent New York Times article. He describes Medellín’s strategy as “transformative.” Medellín residents are proud and included in its future; Mayor Farajo’s approval rating hovers around 80 percent.

Santa Ana can make the transformative changes needed. If this city is going to elevate its own productivity, creativity, entrepreneurship and technological advances, we must begin by investing in our youth and connecting them directly into our economic development opportunities.

If this city is going to secure economic and social change and cultivate parity and equity in income so that its constituents can match and surpass the baseline of the region, Santa Ana must return to its old motto, “Education First.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly cited Santa Ana Unified School District graduation rates at 54 percent. The number is closer to 90 percent. We regret the error.

Note:  Written by Madeleine Spencer, Edited by Rachel Potucek

Madeleine Spencer is the Founder of Diamond Heart Enterprises and a post Doctoral Student in Community Ecology and Liberation Psychology. 

Rachel Potucek is the Founder of The People’s Soap Company and holds a Master’s degree in Communications.

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at

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