Reflection on Tolman

David Donahue Director of the Leo T. McCarthy Center

David Donahue
Director, Leo T. McCarthy Center

As I prepare to teach “Urban School Reform,” an elective in the Masters of Arts in Urban Affairs program, I googled William E. Tolman High School in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the school where I began my teaching career over thirty years ago as a student teacher. 1024px-Pawtucket_HSThe first page of entries included links with titles like, “Pawtucket launches inquiry into student ‘takedown’ at Tolman” and “Students pepper-sprayed, cuffed during Tolman HS protest.” The first three entries on the Wikipedia page for the high school are “Thanksgiving football rivalries,” “dropout rate,” and “security issues.” According to the Wikipedia report, only 54% of the schools first year students go on to graduate, a dropout rate that resulted in the school being labeled a “dropout factory” in a Johns Hopkins study. The security issues section is a depressing catalog of shootings and violence in and around the school. I’m not sure what’s sadder: that the school began requiring photo IDs for all students to improve security or that the photo ID program was eventually dropped for lack of funding. The district is considered the most racially diverse in the state. It’s also one of the poorest. Approximately 70% of the school’s students qualify for free lunch. The photo of Tolman reminded me that even in the 1980s almost all the windows had been replaced by glass bricks, allowing opaque light into classrooms, but leaving no possibility for gazing outside. The online picture of Tolman High School follows a familiar narrative of urban public education: Schools serving mostly poor, mostly students of color, places of violence, places of academic despair.

I know from my experience teaching at Tolman there and my subsequent years working with teachers in districts like Oakland and San Francisco that this is such a biased and incomplete picture of urban schools . What stands out from my experience at Tolman is the brilliance and hard work of students. I remember students from Puerto Rico, Cape Verde, and Cambodia in my 11th grade U.S. history class navigating the English they were still learning to debate whether the city should have a nativity scene in front of City Hall during Christmas, to discuss whether it was fair that only “natural born” citizens could become President of the United States, and to share with each other a “coming to America story” from their own lives or someone in their family. Those who doubt the intelligence of adolescents should have observed that class. This very first teaching experience convinced me about the truth behind a statement that has almost become cliché: All children can learn. Those who say that urban school teachers are lazy and academically mediocre should have met my cooperating teacher, a man with a PhD from Notre Dame who returned to teach at Tolman, the high school he graduated from, because he believed in public education. His dedication, thoughtfulness, and intelligence were inspiring. Sadly, stories of urban school failure focus on the actors — students and teachers — as the problem, rather than the larger political and economic contexts that result in the unequal distribution of resources for education, the segregation of children by race, and the reproduction and legitimization of inequality in our nation. My years of teaching children and working with teachers convince me that children and teachers are not the problem. Larger social inequities are. Meaningful school reform has to be part of larger efforts to eradicate poverty, end racism, and strengthen democracy.

My experience teaching and preparing others to work in urban schools shapes my elective course on urban school reform in the United States. While school reform suffers no shortage of market driven calls to tear schools down in order to rebuild them, I’ve come to understand that creating schools to support meaningful, rigorous, and joyful learning requires listening to a variety of perspectives, including those of teachers and students as well as researchers and policy makers. My experience also teaches me that schools do not stand apart from society but reflect and reproduce it. As part of the course, we will hold a joint class with students from a nearby San Francisco public high school. We will also interact with teachers and administrators in the middle of making city schools work for diverse students to hear voices that are not always reflected in monographs of school reform. We will work with Californians for Justice, an Oakland-based advocacy organization, to document the benefits of social emotional learning so they can make the case for strategies to support students of color, immigrant students, LGBTQ students, and students from low income families in urban schools. My goal is to spend as much time learning in and from real teachers, students, and social justice advocates as from the scholars who can provide us with new lenses to understand urban education.

Far from a place of despair, Tolman remains for me a place of hopefulness, not because it works as it is, but because it’s not impossible to imagine schools that do work for the students who go there. I still believe classrooms are places of joy and possibility, of transformation and growth. That’s why I so look forward to teaching my first class at USF this fall. I can’t wait to work with the students in Urban Affairs to understand why city schools are the way they are, to imagine them as they could be, and to begin working towards more just and equitable education for young people in the Bay Area.

 

Changing Transportation: My Path from USF to Sacramento

Simonds train photoshoot

Shannon Simonds
Master of Arts in Urban Affairs ’16
Transportation Planner, Caltrans

When I started at Master of Arts in Urban Affairs program at the University of San Francisco I just knew that I was interested in understanding the opportunities to mitigate climate change through urban transportation policies and planning. To be working for the state of California as a transportation planner at Caltrans just two years later as an alumna of the Urban Affairs program is still a little crazy to me; but also very exciting.

As a graduate student, I tailored my classes and research to focus on different aspects of transportation as it relates to the environment and urban spaces—and it worked! I get to work in the field I studied and get to learn something new every day. I currently work on the Rail Planning team developing the 2018 State Rail Plan. I am working to coordinate commuter, regional and intercity trains with freight and local bus routes to create a truly integrated, state-wide system. I like that I get to learn about a new area of transportation for me—rail while bringing in a new perspective that tries to incorporate climate sensitivities and equity into the rail planning processes.

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What Narrative Will Emerge from the National Conventions?

Tenoch Flores

Tenoch Flores
Adjunct Professor, Political Communications
Master of Public Affairs and Practical Politics

During my time as Communications Director for the California Democratic Party, I was responsible for developing and implementing the message and narrative for a total of five annual state party conventions, as well as for the California delegation to the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in 2012. This month, both of the nation’s main political parties are preparing to hold their quadrennial national conventions in Cleveland (RNC) and Philadelphia (DNC). Here’s what I can tell you about working to set and advance a narrative during the largest political event of the season: it’s not easy.

Even in the age of social media, custom news feeds and unprecedented personal access, the national party conventions represent the single greatest opportunity both political parties have to project a narrative about their party and their candidates to the electorate. Almost every political observer will be watching and a sizable portion of voters will take in at least the headlines and the main themes that emerge. Continue reading

Life is Not Linear – Learning to Fight for Equity, Diversity, and Democracy in San Francisco

Woo MAUA

David Woo
Master of Arts in Urban Affairs candidate ’17

I decided late last summer to apply to the Master of Arts in Urban Affairs program at the University of San Francisco (USF) in a move to change my career path. As an undergraduate at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC), I studied both chemistry and sociology. While I was passionate about both fields, upon graduating I ended up working with the Environmental, Health, and Safety department at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) in the chemical safety department. While the work I was doing was important, I was not doing the type and scope of work that I truly wanted to do – that is work that addresses issues surrounding social justice. After moving back home to San Francisco after graduating UCSC, there were apparent differences brought about by the technology boom. Increased displacement, skyrocketing housing prices, and a general feeling of unease as trendy boutiques went up in the place of longtime neighborhood serving establishments.

After leaving my job at UCSF I took some time off to reconsider what I wanted out of my career. The serious crisis in San Francisco brought about by rising economic inequality was in full force and my desire to get involved in social justice work ultimately led me to the Urban Affairs program at USF. While I was unsure if I was too late to apply, the staff at the USF McCarthy center took the time to respond to all my questions and helped me get an application in very quickly, well past the official deadline to apply to the program. Having previously been interested in sociology, political activism, and social change movements in college, the interdisciplinary focus of the program seemed like a great fit. Continue reading

Jumping Back into the First Semester of Graduate School

Jeno Wilkinson - Master of Public Affairs at USF

Jeno Wilkinson
Master of Public Affairs candidate ’17

As I look back on my first semester of graduate school, I remember how I felt starting the Master of Public Affairs (MoPA) program back in August. It had been about a year between finishing my undergraduate work and going back to school, so my chief concern entering the fall 2015 semester was if I would be able to get back into the same routines that had yielded success for me in undergrad.

After the first couple weeks of finding my stride in class, as well as at home, I was able to dive headlong into the courses and materials in front of me. The courses offered in the first semester of the MoPA program were a great way to reground myself on the core pillars of what makes our political system move. Having majored in political science during undergrad, this first semester allowed me to reengage with many of the foundational documents and ideas that guide the political conversations of our day.

As the semester progressed, these foundational steps allowed me to better grasp why things are the way they are today and how looking back at the genesis of these problems and issues can be a tremendous asset in developing how to best proceed forward. By taking this approach, I was able to bring in some of the topics and issues that are close to my heart and use that skillset to help develop possible solutions.

This set the stage for me to be able to write my semester research paper on a topic I care deeply about; politics and sports. By looking into local economic development policies of both Oakland and San Francisco over the past forty years, I was able to see this as at the core of why the two cities have had similar yet very different outcome for seeking new stadiums for their professional baseball teams. Without the great ability, encouragement, and guidance of the MoPA faculty, I would not have been able to draw such conclusions while also writing a research paper that can be used for professional development as well.

My first semester in the MoPA program has showed me that the program has a great ability to take topics I care about and use the courses offered to help further those causes. And while I’m very much enjoying winter break, I do look forward to getting back in the classroom.

Master of Public Affairs - USF