Education Pioneers Fellows

SPPD Students Serve as Education Pioneers

By Cristy Lytal

Education Pioneers (From left) Top row: Marie Mazwi, Peter De Pompa; bottom: Claire Brown, Ellen Smith, La Mikia Castillo, Jeimee Estrada
Photo by Julie Milford

This summer, seven students from the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development blazed trails of reform as fellows for Education Pioneers, a national non-profit that engages graduate students with issues in urban education through 10-week, paid summer positions outside the classroom.

“There’s been a strong movement in the current generation of people who want to make an impact and find purpose,” said Jackie Hanselmann, Education Pioneer’s manager of national recruiting. “Our organization is unique because we provide an opportunity for people to really use their skill set in a non-traditional way to make that impact.”

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 have opportunities to network and attend workshops and presentations by panels of experts about key issues in education reform.

This year, Education Pioneers selected 294 fellows from the nearly 2,500 applicants. Among the fellows from SPPD, six worked in Los Angeles and one in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Grace Pun, a master of public administration student and the only fellow to serve in the San Francisco Bay Area, was placed at New Leaders for New Schools, a national organization that mentors and trains aspiring principals in urban public schools. She worked with the marketing team to create a report on the impact of the New Leader program at participating schools.

“I have learned a lot,” she said. “If I’m interested in working on issues of social justice, I definitely better understand the education piece to it.”

Master of public policy student Jeimee Estrada and master of public policy/master of planning student La Mikia Castillo both received placements at ICEF Public Schools, a charter management organization.

Castillo used her experience as a community organizer to develop a framework for the first annual ICEF Public Schools’ Parent Summit. She worked with the directors at ICEF’s 15 schools, developed workshop topics, contacted keynote speakers and formulated a strategy for parent outreach and engagement.

“Growing up in L.A. and going through schools that were underperforming schools, I knew firsthand what it was like to be a student in that position — to be in a failing school and to not really know what to do or where to go, not having the support that I needed,” Castillo said. “That’s part of the reason I was interested in education.”

Estrada designed a parent engagement toolkit based on ICEF Public Schools’ model of involvement and organizing for Families That Can, a non-profit that educates, empowers and mobilizes charter school parents. She also provided recommendations for a strategic action plan for establishing a strong membership base for Families That Can.

“Being an Education Pioneer fellow solidified something I’ve been thinking about a lot,” said Estrada, the youngest fellow in the Los Angeles cohort. “After thinking through the issues of collective bargaining and seeing how parents are disengaged and not given a voice in the decision making process, I definitely want to go to law school and dedicate my future to making an impact on educational code at the statewide level.”

Master of public policy student Peter De Pompa worked on a similar issue at the LMU Family of Schools, where he developed a parent engagement plan for Westchester High School.

“I taught for about four years, and then after that I decided to come to SPPD and really learn about education policy and how I can make a difference outside the classroom,” he said. “Education Pioneers has allowed me to apply some of the skills I’ve used in class, put them in a real-world setting and make a difference.”

Marie Mazwi, who founded an educational non-profit before enrolling in the master of public administration program, was also struck by the difference she could make as an Education Pioneer working in the Innovation and Charter Schools Division of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

“A lot of people that work in Innovation and Charter say they want to be able to make change at a broad level and, working for the government, you really have an opportunity to do that,” she said. “Although there can be more red tape, and it may be more bureaucratic, it also provides that opportunity to affect a lot of people with simple policy decisions.”

At LAUSD, Mazwi streamlined the Public School Choice Advisory Vote process, which gives parents input in management decisions in new and underperforming schools. She also interviewed more than 100 community stakeholders, who made recommendations on restructuring and improving the process.

Master of public administration student Ellen Smith enjoyed the unique placement of serving at Education Pioneers, which has rapidly grown from nine fellows in 2004 to 294 in 2010. To help Education Pioneers reach additional cities and regions, Smith created an expansion strategy based on the best practices from similar organizations like Teach for America.

“This summer really opened my eyes to the fact that there are a lot of opportunities in education, even for someone like me who doesn’t have an education background,” she said. “I don’t want to be a teacher, and I don’t have my master’s in education, but there’s still a place for me in the sector. And actually, I already got a job out of this. I’m starting at a nonprofit called Growing Great in Manhattan Beach, so I’ll be doing that part-time while I finish up my degree.”

Master of public policy student Claire Brown was also impressed by the networking opportunities she experienced as an Education Pioneer fellow. “I was able to meet a lot of different people across LA in the education space,” she said. “I do hope to continue to stay in touch with them during my job search.”

Brown served at the Cotsen Family Foundation, which runs a teacher mentoring program. She used qualitative and quantitative research to evaluate the effectiveness of mentors and identify practices that have the greatest impact on teachers.

“Historically, the fellows that we’ve gotten from SPPD have been excellent and have done great work,” said Brandon Malmberg, Education Pioneer’s managing director for Los Angeles. “Partners have been very satisfied with the projects that SPPD fellows complete and have also been excited to hire them.”