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University of Pittsburgh

November 21, 2013

Urban education: Pitt center gets new director, office space

H. Richard Milner IV

H. Richard Milner IV

The decade-old Center for Urban Education in the School of Education now has a new space in 4118 Wesley W. Posvar Hall after gaining a new director in H. Richard Milner IV this August.

Milner, who is the Dr. Helen S. Faison Chair in Urban Education, was associate professor of education at the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University and founding director of its learning, diversity and urban studies graduate program.

When he first joined Pitt, Milner says, “the center was more, from my perspective, an ideal. There wasn’t a physical space.” With the establishment of the center’s new offices, he says, he felt as if he were starting again from the ground up.

“One of the things that was very important to me was to have a physical space … so we could gather and do the work necessary for us to improve the human condition in urban schools and urban areas in particular,” says Milner. The center’s suite also contains several faculty offices and one dedicated to doctoral students being trained there.

The walls are decorated with art created by students from one of the center’s partner schools, University Prep/Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12 in the Hill District, in response to the questions: “What does education mean to you?” “Who inspires you?”

Below each work is a brief narrative explanation from the students. One says: “I had some dark emotions in my life like people dying and I got some bright emotions.” Beneath another:

“What drives me? My hunger for success to show I tried; my team, my family and the simple fact of proving people wrong.”

Milner says: “I really want the center to be a center that focuses not only on problems in urban environments, but my vision is that this center will lead the way in recognizing the strengths that are often untapped in urban schools.”

Nearly 7 million kids attend urban schools in America today. “And they’re more diverse now than they ever were in our country’s history,” he says. This wider range in race, ethnicity, religion, language and socioeconomics is a chief characteristic of urban school districts, along with their larger size and overburdened budgets.

“We’ve dealt with urban challenges for many years,” Milner says. “It’s how we respond to them that is going to be the difference-maker.”

Part of the center’s challenge is that too many urban schools relying on substitute or under-qualified teachers, as well as the increased accountability pressures educators face today from government and the public. Another part of the challenge is battling educational programs “where students are chasing the test scores and we’re suppressing their creativity, suppressing their ability to think analytically.”

Milner also must counter the assumptions among teachers that parents don’t care enough and students aren’t motivated enough, when parents instead may be working too many hours to attend school activities or meetings, and the kids may not have parents or even an Internet connection at home to help them with homework.

Then there is the cultural divide between students and teachers inside the classroom, he says: “We can talk all day long about teachers knowing their content … but if those teachers, especially in urban environments, aren’t able to connect with students to build a relationship, some students won’t even learn from teachers who don’t show they care about them.”

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The center is in the process of formalizing its faculty associations, says education dean Alan M. Lesgold.

“The School of Education at a top university just has to pay attention” to urban education issues, he says, employing “top scholars and researchers to lead that effort. In many respects the issue of providing adequate education for all of our kids is probably the core issue in all of education now, and that tends to be most directly pursuable when looking at urban education.”

Among the center’s many tasks ahead, Milner says, is to motivate academics to study urban educational issues, and to connect with more principals and teachers.

The center’s interim associate director Erika Gold Kestenberg now is working with Milliones and the center’s other Pittsburgh partner schools to create more professional development for teachers and to bring in more consultants to work with school leaders.

The center is in the early stages of developing projects in several other areas: creating teacher development institutes; offering urban education certificates, perhaps through a partnership with the School of Social Work; creating English and math skill-training programs for urban middle-school and high-school students, and fostering a connection between hip hop culture and teaching in specific disciplines.

The center already holds events such as the Nov. 15 lecture by Pedro A. Noguera, a New York University sociologist who discussed successful urban education strategies now in place at several schools nationwide. Prior to the lecture, the center held a book discussion group, distributing 50 copies of Noguera’s latest book to invited participants, including local principals, assistant principals and about 10 students. After the lecture, it gathered another group to turn Noguera’s talk into a call for action. The center will hold a similar program this spring.

It is also producing newsletters, tips for educators and the recently published “University of Pittsburgh Handbook of Urban Education,” which Milner edited with Kofi Comotey of Western Carolina University. Milner has just signed on for a second three-year term as editor of the journal Urban Education.

Pittsburgh’s urban school district, he says, “is an absolutely ideal place for studying and advancing the learning opportunities and life chances of students.” The district is smaller than many other urban districts, has a relatively higher per capita budget and is surrounded by an active philanthropic community as well as local groups dedicated to aiding the schools’ futures, from the Hill District Education Council to A+ Schools. “It is manageable to a degree that we can really affect the community and students.

“I have a clear vision and mission for what I would like the center to become,” he concludes, “but I am using this year to learn and be responsive to people here in the University and in the community. I’m trying to be a listener, be a learner and be a leader in this learning. I think our children’s lives depend on it. If we don’t get urban education right, I think we’re going to find ourselves as a community and as a nation regretting it for eternity.”

—Marty Levine

Filed under: Feature, Volume 46 Issue 7

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