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Paul Spradley - Bringing Accountability to African American Student Mentoring

Published on 3/31/2016 6:00:00 AM

Name: Paul Spradley
Role: Director at the Robert Morris University Center for Student Success
Area of Concentration (ARCO): Doctorate of Education (EdD) in Social and Comparative Analysis in Education

Could you talk a little bit about your research and how it’s related to mentoring?
One of the things that got me into it was some of the time that I spent serving as a full-time mentor, as a Heinz fellow, at Westinghouse High School through Pittsburgh Public Schools. In that space, I was a mentor, and I was able to use some of my experiences that I brought in, but I was really starting to get curious about what kind of impact we could have had collectively if our training had been a little bit different. I began asking these questions specifically around the mentoring process for African American males—which has since broadened to include African American females—but looking at working with mentoring programs. If all of these mentoring programs are popping up in urban communities, shouldn’t there be some accountability on how the mentors are being developed?

What were some of the things you thought could improve mentoring programs?
What I realized was that one of the things that could have been talked about a little bit more were different elements of culturally responsive pedagogy, so making sure that the student feels like they see themselves in what they are talking about. Making sure that we are empowering the student to be social justice agents in their community, so recognizing things that are issues of social justice, but also empowering them to take ownership of their education.

Can you talk about what kinds of students, or the grade range, you’re looking at more specifically?
I’m looking at African American students that are high school aged, adolescents that are in the city, in urban communities, and in urban schools.

How do you feel that culturally responsive mentoring will meet the needs of African American male and female students?
As you’re looking at finding out what the student is passionate about, you can then push them towards being an advocate in their community, starting with things that they’re interested in. I think one of the foundational pieces of culturally responsive mentoring is care. That’s looked at by Gloria Ladson-Billings, Geneva Gay, and Nel Noddings. They all talk about this idea of really caring for the student almost as if they’re your own child. I think also a mentor needs to go in and understand the environment; they have to be a student of the students they are serving.

I think that, particularly with African American students, going in with the mindset that ‘I’m going to be a student of the student and I’m really going to make sure that I learn about who the student is’ is important, but also what’s important to them and in their culture. That’s going to take good question asking to figure out what kinds of things that student is interested in.

How do you define mentors in terms of your research?
In my research, I identify mentors as more senior people that are in a school-based setting investing in students. I recognize that there is day-to-day mentoring that happens with people, there is out-of-school mentoring, and there are more informal things that happen in business practices. My research, what I’m looking at, is the school based mentor who may be there either once a week or might be there every day; someone who has a relationship with the child over the course of a set amount of time.

Can you talk about your connection with Professor Rich Milner as your advisor and your connection with his Center of Urban Education?
One of the things I really appreciate about the EdD program is the connection that I have with my advisor, Dr. Rich Milner. He is one of the most prolific writers in the United States around race and education right now and to be able to learn from him is amazing. I also am a Center for Urban Education graduate fellow, which allows me to have conversations with the other fellows around the work that I’m doing. It’s really been an amazing resource to connect with Dr. Milner and the people that are in the center; the graduate students, the post-docs, and the other staff that are there. They’ve been a tremendous resource just to bounce questions off of and to really fine tune what my problem of practice is looking like.

Can you talk about how the EdD program allows for different perspectives?
One of the things that the EdD program is good about is helping us have a different perspective, a different lens, on things. I’ve come into this space sort of gung ho and already running, but there’s a lot of people coming in that are new to it. They’re new to the idea of engaging conversations about race. The EdD program has been particularly intentional about making sure that in many of the classes that we’re having conversations around not just the affluent students, but the less affluent students. We’re having conversations not just about what a traditional school looks like, but what does an untraditional school look like? What does that conversation of educating students, all students, look like from various perspectives?

How did you initially choose the University of Pittsburgh to pursue your doctoral studies?
At the time, I was considering Robert Morris, Duquesne, and Pitt. I had the opportunity to speak with a representative from the University of Pittsburgh, Maggie Sikora. She, in addition to really walking me through how this program would fit my needs, was really available to me. I’m someone who likes to understand things at a high level and also understand the steps to get me to that high level; it’s how I learn. She was really able to do that. I felt a connection with the University of Pittsburgh because of how she was able to communicate what the school could do for me in the big picture, and the steps I would be taking to get there.

So it was clear to me that if I were to go to the University of Pittsburgh, that if there were people like Maggie out there recruiting and talking to potential students like me, there’s going to be people on the inside that will make me feel supported, too. That’s a big deal for me, feeling supported. I was able to come through, and I got connected really quickly to Dr. Milner and the Center for Urban Education. I got connected really quickly with some of the other faculty here. It was just a really positive environment and an academically challenging environment that I was able to come into. I’m happy with my decision to come to the University of Pittsburgh.

Can you talk about your specific area of concentration?
Social and comparative analysis in education is the cohort that I’m in. Social and comparative analysis in education gives you a framework to begin to listen to conversations that are on the other side of the fence, so that you can find the common ground to solve problems. Right now, if you look at the way things are set up, we’re not solving problems. There’s these people that are yelling about this and these people that are yelling about this and they’re going to continue to yell until there’s those folks that can hear the other side and find common ground and then begin to take steps forward. That’s the kind of thing that I want to do big picture. That’s how we’re changing the world. That’s what the University of Pittsburgh and the EdD program can do in a micro sense and in a macro sense because we’re understanding these problems. By us having these conversations and figuring out tools about how to address these things, I think that we’re part of the people that are changing this conversation.

Is there anything else you think would be good for prospective students to know about the experience you’ve had at the University of Pittsburgh?
I think a prospective student should know that, at the University of Pittsburgh, people care. They’re not going to let you fail, which is a fear for folks that haven’t been in school sometimes for many years. They’re coming back and looking into a doctoral program. You need to know that you’re going to be taken care of. It’s a doctoral program, so it’s not going to be easy; that’s part of the process, but along the way you have people who have brilliant minds. That’s one of the things that’s really exciting. You’re able to sort of drive how your problem of practice is going to go just from learning a little bit from this person, from this person, from that professor. I think that if you’re on the fence about this program, come down and talk to the people and you’ll see that there’s something here that isn’t captured in brochures and online and things like that, and that’s the people. The people that are here at the University of Pittsburgh are really solid; they’re rock stars. They’ll make you feel comfortable, and they’ll help you get to that point where you’re being successful not only in the School of Education but in life afterwards.

To get a full scope of the EdD program, you can view our videos. Discover why we created the new EdD program, how our programs allow for a work/life balance, the importance of a cohort model, and the benefits of studying with students in other disciplines.


9/12/2016 6:17:52 PM

Jo Victoria Goodman

Nicely said, Paul! Lovely to see you working from a space of integrity. Best wishes to you and yours!

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