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A Race Scholar

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LOS ANGELES — Standing at the bustling intersection of North Wilmington Avenue and El Segundo Boulevard in Compton on a recent Tuesday morning, Dr. Tyrone Howard was quickly overcome by nostalgia.

The prominent UCLA professor remembered the days when he wore a yellow vest and roamed the narrow corridors of Willowbrook Middle School as a proud member of the school’s honor society.

Forty-one years had passed since Howard graduated from the school, but his formative years as a student there radically transformed his life and set him on the path to becoming the world class scholar that he is today.

Dr. Tyrone HowardDr. Tyrone HowardPhoto by Caylo Seals“This place was like a critical transition for me personally and academically,” says Howard, sporting a light gray, checkered pattern suit, a pastel pink tie, and a pair of Air Jordan sneakers. “Compton gets a bad rap for a lot of things that it doesn’t do and what it’s not, but this place was big for me.”

Amid the deadly drug epidemic, urban disinvestment, and rise in gang warfare at the hands of the Bloods and the Crips, Compton was notoriously a tough place in the 1980s. But despite all that, Willowbrook Middle School — it has since been renamed Compton Early College High School — stood tall as a beacon of hope, a powerful symbol of what was possible if educators and policymakers made a serious investment in urban education.

In so many ways, the working class Compton neighborhood has dramatically remade itself over the past few decades. What was once a white enclave in the 1950s and 1960s saw an influx of Black families in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, the Latinx population hovers around 71%.

Those shifting demographics are broadly reflected in today’s student population. What has not changed, however, is the school’s fading façade — it includes a mural of an elderly Black man with a gray goatee and a cap — that greets those who pass by the busy thoroughfare. It’s a lasting remnant of the cultural vibrancy that has always defined this working class neighborhood, even through hard and challenging times.

Middle school as a turning point

Back in the 1980s, droves of Black families clamored to enroll their children into Willowbrook Middle School. Howard’s parents, Beverly Sisnett and Howard Caldwell, were among that group. Mom and dad were both southerners who, like so many other Blacks, made their way west to Compton in the late 1950s, early 1960s in search of economic opportunities that would yield a better life for them and their two sons.

They believed that Willowbrook would provide young Tyrone an opportunity to excel as he readied himself for high school and beyond.

“I knew here, that doing well academically was important if I wanted to go to college,” recalls Howard, who credits his former principal, the late Dr. Lawrence C. Freeman, with helping students and parents realize that academic excellence was well within their reach.

“He was like a critical person who kind of helped us to understand that something different was possible,” says Howard, adding that Freeman was also a taskmaster who would sometimes stroll the school grounds with a bullhorn and direct teachers to lock students out of the building if they arrived late to school. He was also known for doling out spankings with a big wooden paddle. “I was late one time and got paddled, and I was never late again,” Howard says with a hearty laugh.

Despite Freeman’s aggressive tactics and his stern approach, the mostly Black students at Willowbrook flourished under his courageous leadership.

“A lot of parents respected that he was trying to raise the bar of where he thought we could go,” says Howard. “He was a leader who saw our potential, saw our promise, and was committed to seeing the students in his school do better in ways that other schools did not.”

That kind of care and concern should be the norm for all students, says Howard, who has been on a mission to call attention to the widening racial and economic disparities that hurt Black and brown students.

“He has been one of the significant voices in urban education over the past two decades,” says Dr. Chance W. Lewis, the Carol Grotnes Belk Distinguished Professor of Urban Education and the executive director of The Urban Education Collaborative at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “He continues to advance our understanding of the possibilities that exist for youth in urban settings. His teaching, research, outreach, and service has shown his continued dedication to the work that is now more important than ever, and he has remained consistent and steadfast in his commitment to excellence.”

A connection to Compton

It’s impossible to talk about Howard’s impressive and meteoric rise, both in and outside of academe, without interrogating Compton’s impact on his life.

“Growing up here, we knew about UCLA, but it seemed so far away,” he says of the institution, roughly 15 miles away from his old neighborhood, that has served as his academic home since 2001. “It was like a lifetime away.”

Standing outside of the modest duplex that his parents purchased in Compton in 1971 for $22,000, Howard fondly remembers how this vibrant neighborhood — where residents looked out for one another and where he played basketball in the community gym at the nearby Gonzalez Park — was a place full of love.

Dr. Tyrone HowardDr. Tyrone HowardPhoto by Caylo Seals“I am who I am because of this street, my family, these people, this neighborhood. I would not change it for the world,” says Howard.

But the neighborhood started to change.

He remembers the time when a bullet penetrated a living room wall. And then there was the time that his mother — who worked for 30 years for the phone company — called him during his freshman year at University of California, Irvine, to tell him that his childhood friend Johnny fell victim to a drive-by shooting.

“I’ve lost lots of friends unfortunately, but that one hurt because we grew up with Johnny,” says Howard, adding that gun violence had steadily become a regular occurrence throughout much of the 1980s. “Whenever you heard shooting, you just knew the routine. You got down.”

Today, Howard is a professor of education in the School of Education & Information Studies at UCLA and the director of three research centers: the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools, the Black Male Institute, and the Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children & Families. He has been spending lots of time thinking about what happens to deteriorating neighborhoods over time.

“As much as folks will talk about all of the challenges that this neighborhood and this community has had, what I will not do is to let that be the entire narrative because most of the folks here were good hardworking, law abiding, tax-paying individuals,” he says. “It was the best of times.”

The focus, he says, must be on the creation and the implementation of policies that ultimately help to improve communities over the long haul.

“Our cities need significant urban renewal — affordable housing, safety, public services — and schools are a big part of it,” he says. “When you have good public schools, folks will flock.”

Good schools, says Howard, should be the norm and not the exception.

“Every city has a school that is doing well. Every district has a program, and if you’re fortunate enough to get into that school or program, you’ll do fine,” he says. “But if you don’t, you’re struggling.”

He knows.

Prior to heading to graduate school at the University of Washington, Howard taught elementary school in the Compton Unified School District while working on his master’s degree at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

That’s where he learned how to perfect his teaching.

“Teaching elementary school was the hardest job I ever had, because it was so intense, so demanding,” says Howard. “The needs of students were not just academic, they were social- emotional; but it was the most rewarding job I ever had, because it’s the best feeling when you see students get it.”

Howard says he’s blown away when he meets K-12 schoolteachers who have followed his career and who praise his scholarship.

“But I say, ‘you’re on the frontlines,’” he says. “It’s hard. Every day you show up, you have 35 different personalities in a classroom, and you have to be able to respond to all of them.”

Delving into the research

By the time the second year of teaching elementary students rolled around, Howard started to seriously consider pursuing a Ph.D.

“While I enjoyed teaching, it was exhausting,” says Howard, adding that burnout at the K-12 level often happens quickly, and Black men are often encouraged to leave the classroom to become school principals.

“I did not want to be a principal because I watched the principals that I had, and I saw how much they were spent,” he says.

While pursuing a master’s degree in education, Howard quickly developed a deep passion for research.

“I was blown away by the research that was being done on urban schools, but the stuff I was reading was not what I saw in my urban school,” he says. “So, I was like, ‘whose doing this research? Because they must not be coming to communities like mine where I am teaching or that I grew up in.”

Howard ventured off to the University of Washington to study multicultural education under the direction of Drs. Geneva Gay and James A. Banks. He would earn his doctorate in just three years.

During Howard’s second year in the graduate program, Gay, his “academic mother,” suggested that he attend the American Educational Research Association’s meeting in 1996.

Dr. Tyrone HowardDr. Tyrone HowardPhoto by Caylo Seals“I had no idea what AERA was — never heard of it,” says Howard, who despite his growing interest in research, was still uncertain if he wanted to pursue a career in higher education. He says he thought that, after earning the degree, he might return to the Compton school district to work as a curriculum coordinator or literacy specialist.

But the AERA conference was a turning point in his career trajectory.

“I would sit in those sessions, and I became enamored with it,” says Howard, who has attended every meeting over the past 28 years. “I would sit in sessions like a nerd, and I would soak all that stuff up. And then I knew that for the next year, I wanted to come back and present something.”

Shadowing Gay during that first year, Howard was awestruck by all the well-known scholars whose work he had studied and read across the years.

“I remember meeting Gloria Ladson-Billings and thought I had met the second coming,” he says with a chuckle. “I was blown away by being able to meet my academic heroes.”

At AERA, Howard found individuals who were interested in talking about race and education. Active within the organization, he was encouraged to run for the AERA Council. He was elected and served a three-year term. “That was where I got a behind the scenes view of how the organization operated,” he says.

Howard says that, as a council member, he was involved in a host of activities including reviewing bylaws, rules, budgets, and regulations. But Dr. Shaun Harper, a past AERA president and a professor at University of Southern California, encouraged him to run for the AERA presidency.

“I fought it, I fought it, I fought it,” remembers Howard, who ultimately relented. He ran and was elected.

“Because of the undisputed rigors and impact of Tyrone’s scholarship as well as our colleagues’ enormous magnitude of respect for him, I knew more than a decade ago that he’d someday be elected AERA president,” Harper contends. “I also knew he’d be one of the greatest AERA presidents of all time. Unsurprisingly, President Howard has proved me right about both.”

When the association convenes in Philadelphia in April, the issue of race will take center stage. This year’s theme is titled “Dismantling Racial Injustice and Constructing Educational Possibilities: A Call to Action.” It’s an appropriate topic, particularly in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, Donald Trump’s presidency, attacks on Critical Race Theory, the banning of books, and the recent dismantling of affirmative action by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I’m a race guy,” says Howard. “I study race, I think about race, I talk about race, and I thought, ‘maybe this is the time to have a conversation about race, in light of everything that had been going on.”

Almost immediately, he encountered some resistance from educational researchers who claimed that their area of research does not focus on race. Still, Howard wasn’t persuaded by their arguments.

“I was intrigued to hear people talk about why they didn’t talk about race, and for me that was the very reason why I felt I wanted to talk about race,” he says. “No matter what area of education you’re in, you should at least be asking some questions that have to do with race. You cannot talk about education in this country without talking about race. The two go hand in hand.”

From assessment to curriculum, to history to teaching higher education, Howard says, scholars should be thinking about where racial equality fits into the overall equation.

“My whole goal and purpose is to figure out how we have a conference-wide conversation about race,” he says, adding that at the end of the conversation, he wants the nearly 15,000 expected attendees to reimagine what education policy and practice might look like when racial equity is prioritized.

As part of his ambitious agenda, Howard’s presidency has also been focused on drawing more historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) into the ranks of AERA, and he has organized a pre-conference where participants will venture into one of Philadelphia’s public schools to talk with students, parents, and educational leaders about the history of race and how it has been deeply embedded within the school system.

“The presidency is only one year, and you can only do so much, but hopefully, we can put some wheels in motion around some of these initiatives that can keep the conversation going,” he says.

A scholar-teacher

Inside his office at UCLA, Howard is winding down for the day. Between answering emails, he’s readying himself for an early morning flight to Chicago, where he will spend the day touring some of the city’s schools.

After he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Washington, Howard accepted a tenure-track position at The Ohio State University. But the goal, as he readily admits, was to find his way back home — to Los Angeles.

And then, a position opened at UCLA in 2001. He earned tenured three years later, became a full professor in 2011, and was named the Pritzker Family Endowed Chair of Education in 2018.

“I’m a public school product,” he says. “I taught in public schools; my kids went to public schools. To me, I think public schools represent the common good that everyone should have access to.”

Howard has authored several best-selling books — including Why Race and Culture Matter in Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap in America's Classrooms, Black Male(d): Peril and Promise in the Education of African American Males, and a new forthcoming book, titled Equity Now: Justice, Repair & Belonging in Schools — but says he feels most at home working in the classroom. His undergraduate class, “Race, Class Gender and School Equality,” is one of UCLA’s most popular courses, regularly drawing about 150 students each year.

“For me, the teaching I do at the higher education level is much better because I taught elementary school,” says Howard, whose office is adorned with a wall-length mural of Ella Baker — the 1960s civil rights organizer.

Through the years, Howard has trained a legion of talented scholars, including Dr. Nichole Garcia, an assistant professor of higher education at Rutgers University.

“I have benefited from his unwavering support throughout my time as a graduate student and junior scholar of color. He inspires me to be the best academic I can be, but more importantly, the best possible version of myself, not tied to merit,” says Garcia. “I am always reminded of his words, ‘closed mouths don’t get fed,’ and ‘when you are not writing, you need to be writing.’ I would not be where I am today without his example of being a good human being while doing the work that matters most.”

When asked about his incredible journey that stretches from Compton to UCLA, to the presidency of AERA, Howard becomes reflective.

“It’s always a challenge for me because there’s a bit of survivors’ remorse,” he says. “I have been fortunate to have opportunities provided for me personally and professionally that a lot of folks from my neighborhood were not afforded and it wasn’t because I was the smartest; it wasn’t because I was the hardest working; it wasn’t because I was the most intellectually gifted. There’s just these sort of occurrences that put me in this place that could have easily put some of the folks I grew up with in the same position.”

There’s no magic formula to it all.

“There’s a certain amount of randomness to it,” he says matter-of-factly. “Part of the reason why I do the work I do today, is that it should not have to be random for folks to get to where they are in life. There should be an intentionality around access and opportunity, and public education should be a big part of it.”

The fight, he says, is to ensure that brilliant and hardworking kids living in poor and working class neighborhoods like Compton have the same educational opportunities as those who reside in affluent Bel-Air.

“I know how much potential and promise is within those students,” he says. “They just need to have the opportunity and the chance to manifest their brilliance much like I was given the opportunity.”   

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