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Growing up in Inglewood, California, Matt Gonzales and his friends cracked jokes about their segregated high school — an island of black and Hispanic students in the middle of an affluent, white neighborhood.
Gonzales saw that same racial and economic isolation again when he returned to the classroom years later, this time as a special education teacher in California.
But it wasn’t until he worked his way into graduate school at Columbia University’s Teachers College that Gonzales started to delve deeper into the issue of segregation.
Now, it’s his full-time job. Gonzales was recently named School Diversity Project director for New York Appleseed, the local chapter of a national nonprofit network that focuses on social justice issues.
Appleseed has already played an active role in the ongoing conversation about how to integrate New York City schools. Executive Director David Tipson helped shape the state’s Socioeconomic Integration Pilot Program, which offered grants to help boost struggling schools by making them more diverse. And in school Districts 13, which received a SIPP grant, Appleseed is helping lay the groundwork for integration plans.
With Gonzales on board, and a new school year starting soon, Appleseed is hoping to grow its impact. Gonzales has plans to forge new partnerships and bring together the various groups already working on school diversity issues. Most of all, Gonzales said he wants to give students a voice in the process, and is already working with a Bronx-based student group called IntegrateNYC4Me to do that.
(the text above is part of the article by Christina Veiga, “New York Appleseed’s new diversity director wants to enlist more students in the push for integrated schools” which appeared on chalkbeat.org on Aug. 29, 2016)
Emily Neff graduated with an M.A. degree in Education Policy from Teachers College in May 2016. She joined the Education Policy Program in 2014. After being accepted to the program, she took advantage of starting earlier, taking courses in summer 2014. She spread her program of studies over 6 semesters, taking classes in summer, fall, and spring. During the first fall semester, she took four courses but then she slowed down in order to take advantage of a great professional opportunity outside Teachers College. She wanted to gain professional experience as well as build a network that would help her move along her career path.
Emily, please tell us a little about your education background and professional experience before you arrived at the Education Policy Program at Teachers College?
I attended Allegheny College, a small, liberal arts school in Meadville, Pennsylvania for my undergraduate education. Through my minor in Values, Ethics, and Social Action (VESA), I discovered my passion for education and social justice by participating in service learning course. After I graduated in 2012, I moved to Mississippi to teach first grade at Hazlehurst Elementary through Teach for America. Teaching and building relationships with students and families taught me the importance of perspective, critical reflection, and empathy. My students and their families ignited a strong sense of social responsibility in me to pursue the practice of policy. While I enjoyed being a teacher and a member of the Hazlehurst community, I was interested in digging deeper into the systemic issues that impacted my students and other students across the country. As I navigate the work of policy and advocacy, I continue to think about my former students and their families in Mississippi because they are the reason I want to be in education.
What attracted you to our program?
I applied to both education policy and public policy programs in Pittsburgh, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City. Ultimately, what made me choose TC was the focus on education policy and social analysis. I remember a current student reaching out to me by email and being very helpful in answering my questions of the courses that were offered. She told me about the School Law Institute course (which ended up being the first class I took at TC) and the choices of specialization. I was excited to connect with peers and professors across disciplines of politics, sociology, and economics about issues facing students, teachers, families and communities.
How did you organize your program of studies? Which specialization did you choose?
Throughout my two years, I took courses that touched on early childhood, K-12, and law. Initially, I had the intention of specializing in Law and Education. However, as I began to get deeper into my studies I ended up focusing on the K-12 specialization. In my first two semesters, I felt it was important to take Data Analysis I and II to develop my quantitative analysis skills. During my first year, I also took Politics and Public Policy and Craft of Policy Analysis. These courses provided me with a foundation for how to navigate the policy field. Another important aspect of the program is to take the opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations with the people you are surrounded by at TC. Some of the most formative conversations that challenged the way I thought about certain issues happened over a coffee or beer.
Was the culminating paper or other coursework helpful to your appointment as a Coro Fellow? Did you mention these experiences during the application process?
My culminating project focused on a Pittsburgh school closure and consolidation process that was underway in the 2015-2016 school year. The Wilkinsburg High School announced it would be closing and consolidating with Westinghouse High School in the Pittsburgh community of Homewood. Pittsburgh has a history of school closures that have disproportionately impacted low-income African-American communities. My culminating paper focused on the contributing factors to school closures and consolidations in the Pittsburgh area, how issues of race and class are discussed (or not discussed) in the process, the role of formal evidence in making the decision, and the level of family and community engagement. Coro has a partnership with Wilkinsburg and Homewood so I did speak about my CP in the application process. As part of the group consulting project, I worked with a nonprofit in Homewood and students in Westinghouse (after completing the fellowship, Emily was hired by the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children as a Public Policy Associate.)
What are the most useful skills you learned while at TC?
My classes, professors, and peers from TC have provided me with the tools to navigate the policy field. I consider the most useful skills I gained through TC courses to be data analysis, policy memo writing, how to identify a problem and offer researched and evidence-based solutions, and how to frame an argument. In my previous work as a Family Support Coordinator in NYC and in my role as a Coro policy fellow, I often looked for a window of opportunity and thought about how to identify a problem and offer solutions. Additionally, two useful skills I learned from my peers are how to ask critical questions with the intention of improving an organization, institution, or policy and how to engage in challenging and thought-provoking conversations. I utilize the skills I gained at TC on a daily basis through memo writing, researching policies, and engaging in critically conscious dialogue.
Isaac Solano graduated with an M.A. in Education Policy from Teachers College, Columbia University in 2015. He is now a Ph.D. candidate in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Program at the University of Denver, in his home state of Colorado. In 2016, he was named a Barbra L. Jackson Scholar by the University Council for Educational Administration. It is a prestigious program that provides mentoring and support for current doctoral students of color who want to one day become tenure-track faculty at a university.
Isaac began his career in education as an intern for the Denver Public Schools (DPS) Foundation. While working for the DPS Foundation, he learned how the non-profit wing of the school district leveraged numerous resources to improve the quality of education for students in Denver classrooms.
His first policy work began when he served in the Washington DC office of U.S. Senator Michael F. Bennet (D-CO). Isaac was responsible for attending all education briefings on Capitol Hill and reporting back to the Senator’s senior legislative staff. This experience allowed Isaac to see what national actors are involved in the education policy process and how elected officials respond to various policy and advocacy groups.
While a student in EPSA at TC, Isaac further harnessed his interest in public policy and researched how resources are used within public schools. After he completed his Capstone Project under the guidance of Teachers College professor Luis A. Huerta, Isaac realized that further inquiry into school resources was needed, especially into school resources back in his hometown of Denver, Colorado. That is precisely why he chose to return to Denver to pursue his doctorate degree.