Price alumni group amplifying grads’ efforts to shape LA education sector

September 15, 2016

Master of Public Policy students and alumni, from left (clockwise): Katherine Stofer MPP ’17; Justin Tandingan MPP ’14; Rebecca Velasco MPP ’15; Matthew Gonzalez MPP ’15; Jennifer Power MPP ’15; Avery Seretan MPP ’16; and Megan VandenBos MPP ’15

By Matthew Kredell

Education is often cited as an area that could create an enormous positive difference on issues of social justice. But such a result would require an immense effort of people working together to make systematic change over time.

Two alumni of the USC Price School of Public Policy have formed the Price Education Network (PEN) to try to make a collective impact in education.

Matthew Gonzalez

Matthew Gonzalez MPP ’15

Matthew Gonzalez, a 2015 graduate of Price’s Master of Public Policy program, had the idea to start PEN soon after graduation when he tried to connect with other USC alumni working in the education realm, but had difficulty finding where they were working or what they were working on.

For Gonzalez, education has been a long-standing passion — he previously served as a high school language arts teacher, a Fulbright fellow and an Education Pioneers fellow. In August 2015, Gonzalez reached out to Justin Tandingan MPP ’14, who works at Teach for America (TFA); the two had met at USC Price while Tandingan was president of the student organization, the Graduate Policy Administration Community.

Together, they gauged interest by setting up a networking event in downtown L.A. More than a dozen showed up, encouraging them to follow through on the idea.

Now, PEN is up to about 80 members, ranging from CEOs of nonprofits to current students, representing 55 organizations across the L.A. area. The network established a seven-person board that always includes one USC Price student.

“Our mission is to build a community of Price alumni in L.A. working in the education space, and amplifying the impact of that community, in tandem supporting current students trying to get into the space to get them the best jobs to maximize their impact,” Gonzalez said.

From students to change-agents

Justin Tandingan

Justin Tandingan MPP ’14

Tandingan was excited to expand on the network he had already built as a Price student, but also the potential for them to help one another given the complexity of the work they do.

“Education policy is such a unique realm of work in terms of its scope, the amount of money involved, the number of stakeholders, and the difficulty to measure K-12 impact,” Tandingan said. “I thought a lot about what this network could do, what we could do for one another, and how we might be able to build upon the already great Trojan family.”

Gonzalez is a manager of program data and evaluation at Leadership for Education Equity (LEE), a national nonprofit that encourages and supports teachers to further their influence through policy work, advocacy, elected office and nonprofit leadership, with the thought that having a teacher’s perspective can help lead to better decisions for students and the community.

One of the reasons Gonzalez wanted to start PEN is that he had experienced firsthand the power of the Price network. As first generation in his family born in the U.S., he didn’t have any connections to get a job upon graduation except for what he developed at USC Price. Fellow Price alumnus Brent Tercero, now a member of PEN, was working at LEE and told Gonzalez about the opportunity.

PEN members at a recent event co-hosted with Education Pioneers.

PEN members at a recent event co-hosted with Education Pioneers.

“One thing USC most definitely does right is it has a strong culture among alumni,” said Gonzalez. “The Trojan network is a very real thing. In all my experiences cold-emailing alumni, they’ve always responded and they’ve always been open for a call. The culture at USC really lends itself to creating something powerful.”

Tandingan was teaching fourth grade through TFA when he realized that he wanted to make an even broader, system-level contribution to student success beyond his individual classroom. He completed his MPP and returned to TFA, where he is managing director of the Southern California Recruitment Team, making sure some of the highest-need regions across the country are getting the quality teachers they need.

With the creation of PEN, he’s been able to meet new people doing exciting work at organizations he previously didn’t know existed, collaborating with them on best practices for recruiting teachers.

“I’ve looked toward this network to have conversations that are critical to our work and to help me process what’s happening within the Los Angeles education landscape,” Tandingan said.

Broadening connections, building capacity

Avery Seretan

Avery Seretan MPP ’16

The focus for the first year was mostly around building the community component of the network. They created a master list of all L.A.-based education organizations along with any PEN members employed at each. They plan to update the list annually.

In year two, they are looking for new ways to make a difference. PEN is assisting USC Price Professor Antonio Bento, past chair of the Department of Policy Analysis and Real Estate, on designing a potential future education policy course for the MPP curriculum.

Former teacher Avery Seretan joined PEN last year as an MPP student. Now beginning pursuit of a Doctor of Education at the USC Rossier School, Seretan is on the PEN committee working with Bento to build up Price’s in-house education policy capacity.

Seretan – a past fellow at the California Charter Schools Association and Education Pioneers – said PEN is providing Bento with potential topics and themes for which PEN members might be interested in providing practitioner expertise, helping to flesh out the syllabus for a future education policy course and identify people who could serve as guest speakers.

“I feel fortunate to have a voice that could impact future students to give them that outlet to focus specifically on education policy,” Seretan said.

“The impact they’re having in creating a community on education policy highlights a lot of what the Price School is doing, and as a consequence we can help and inform each other about different career opportunities,” Bento said. “They provide mentorship to our current students, and I think in the future could also provide a lot of assistance in the training we do in education policy.”

Eventually, the co-founders hope PEN can make a tangible difference in education and, as a result, the community.

“How is L.A. better off because we exist?” Gonzalez asked. “That is a real conversation that we’re having. As we get into year two, continuing to develop and grow with Price’s assistance, I think the conversation will turn to how do we give back to L.A. That requires a lot of capacity, and right now we’re building the infrastructure to do that work.”