USC Price School of Public Policy

SPPD Fellows Make Their Marks as Education Pioneers

SPPD Fellows Make Their Marks as Education Pioneers

By Cristy Lytal

Education Pioneers Fellows SPPD graduate students, from left, Wilma Morales-Franco, Skye Tirsbier, Aida Mariam, Robert Trombley, Erica Valencia, Sam Gelinas and Vanessa Ramirez focused on education reform during the summer.
Photo by Photomyface/Kem Anyanwu

When it comes to education, there actually are four Rs — reading, writing, arithmetic and reform.

Over the summer, eight students from the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development (SPPD) concentrated on the subject of reform as fellows for Education Pioneers, a national nonprofit that recruits graduate students to explore issues in urban education through 10-week, paid summer positions outside the classroom.

Founded in 2003 in the San Francisco Bay Area, Education Pioneers has expanded to Los Angeles, the New York Metro Area, the Washington, D.C. Metro Area, the Greater Boston Area, Chicago and Houston. Fellows serve in school districts, charter management organizations, foundations, expanded learning time programs, and research and policy programs. Throughout the summer, they also had opportunities to network and attend presentations by panels of experts regarding key issues in education reform.

This year, Education Pioneers selected more than 320 fellows nationwide. Among the fellows from SPPD, seven worked in Los Angeles and one was based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Many fellows came to the program with substantial experience in the education field.

Sam Gelinas worked as a special education high school teacher and tutoring center coordinator before enrolling as a Master of Public Policy student at SPPD. As an Education Pioneers fellow, he developed a recruitment plan and rebranding recommendations for the Head Start/State Preschool, a division of the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

“I had always been working specifically with kids and never doing administration stuff, so this project was a step into that kind of role,” he said. “It’s what I’d like to be doing [and] was a good opportunity.”

Robert Trombley, a Master of Public Policy student with four years of experience running an afterschool program, served as a fellow at the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, a nonprofit that implements TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement. Trombley created and analyzed a compendium of teacher evaluation efforts throughout the country.

“Education Pioneers was a great experience in terms of the network that I was able to build,” he said. “The other fellows were just extremely talented, thoughtful individuals, as were the education leaders that I was exposed to in all the different realms that are working on education reform in Los Angeles.”

Trombley was not the only student to dedicate his summer to improving teacher evaluation.

Through Education Pioneers, Kristen McCaw collaborated with school staff and education technology companies to implement teacher evaluation, performance pay and professional development systems for the Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland.

Before pursuing her Master of Public Administration degree at SPPD, McCaw launched college preparatory programs for the East River Development Alliance and worked at Harlem Success Academy Charter schools in New York.

“I’ve found that I really enjoy starting things, implementing new programs and getting new systems off the ground,” she said. “I just find it to be really challenging and a space with a lot of opportunities for creativity. And I do think there’s a lot of promise in charter schools, so that’s a space that I’m definitely interested in continuing to explore.”

Charter schools also were the focus for fellow Skye Tirsbier, who is enrolled in the Master of Planning/Master of Science in Business Administration dual degree program. She applied past work experience in the real estate development field to prepare a manual about finding, securing and financing facilities for the California Charter Schools Association.

“Charter schools are a huge movement right now,” she said. “There’s that need and that challenge charter schools face with finding facilities, and that presents me with a good opportunity for pursuing some career in that capacity, especially with my background in real estate.”

For fellow Aida Mariam, a Master of Public Policy student, Education Pioneers also provided a chance to parlay experience in a different field in a new direction. With her background as a community and labor organizer, Mariam served at Parent Revolution, an organization that creates parent unions at underperforming schools.

“Education Pioneers opened my eyes,” she said. “I could tell you what was going on in the labor world, but I had no idea what was going on in education – and I learned a lot. There are many undocumented folks in South L.A. and in L.A. generally, that aren’t getting the same education that West L.A. or other communities are getting. There is structural and institutional racism and a lot of class issues. So how do we close that achievement gap?”

At Parent Revolution, Mariam conducted applied policy research to create a ladder of engagement to encourage the participation of parents, community members and civic organizations in the educational process. She also organized 100 parents to take a bus to Sacramento and speak to the California State Board of Education.

Master of Public Policy student Vanessa Ramirez also attemped to make a difference as a fellow working in the Innovation and Charter Schools Division of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

“I really enjoyed being on the inside and being able to work with superintendent [John] Deasy’s strategic team,” she said. “Being able to really influence and be a part of those conversations and decisions is something that greatly interests me.”

At LAUSD, Ramirez codified the public school choice process, which gives parents input in management decisions in new and underperforming schools. She also documented the history of the process from its inception in 2009 to the present in order to evaluate best practices and develop a strategic plan.

Master of Public Policy student Erica Valencia spent her summer as a fellow at Los Angeles Education Partnership, a nonprofit dedicated to improving academic achievement in high-need schools through partnerships with parents, educators and the community. Valencia developed marketing tools and a communications strategy for the organization.

Even for the many fellows who already planned to pursue a career in this field, a summer with Education Pioneers changed their lives in lasting ways.

Wilma Morales-Franco, who graduated with her MPP in May, has been involved in the education field since high school, doing everything from tutoring to serving as a youth specialist at the Koreatown Youth & Community Center.

As an Education Pioneers fellow, she worked on the online instruction and instructional coach components for the “I Have a Dream” Foundation, a Los Angeles organization that adopts elementary school students and provides long-term academic and financial support. After the fellowship, the foundation permanently hired Morales-Franco, who is a new mother.

“Being in the fellowship allowed me to really understand that being a career woman doesn’t mean that I can’t be a mom, too,” she said. “I owe that to Education Pioneers and especially to their staff, who have been great with me, supporting me every step of the way. Education Pioneers is really dear to my heart now.”