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Leveling the Playing Field in Education

By Helen Dodson

Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy

Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy tried hard not to go into education. She wanted to be a lawyer and TV broadcaster.

Holcomb-McCoy grew up in Hampton, Virginia, where her father was a science teacher and elementary school principal, and her mother was a school counselor and business teacher. While a high school student in the 1950s, her father, Frederick W. Holcomb protested the "separate but equal" doctrine of racial segregation in public schools, but even after the US Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, segregation persisted for several more years in Prince Edward County, Virginia.

Despite her family's history, Holcomb-McCoy didn't intend to become a teacher or counselor herself, until a chance opportunity changed the direction of her life.

In the summer between her sophomore and junior years at the University of Virginia (UVA), where she was majoring in rhetoric and communications, Holcomb-McCoy's father told her about an opening as a teacher's aide in a Title 1 reading program for second graders. Title 1 is the federal program that provides funds to schools with low-income students. She grabbed the job, fell in love with the second graders and teaching, went back to UVA, and changed her major to education.

Holcomb-McCoy went on to receive a master's in school counseling at UVA, and a doctorate in counseling education at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. From there she landed her first academic appointment in New York City, as an assistant professor in the School of Education at Brooklyn College, where she learned how crucial it is for schools, families, and entire communities to be partners in order to ensure that children learn and thrive.

Brooklyn College is part of the City University system, and is tightly connected to the New York City public school system. "I learned so much about large urban districts, the role of universities in partnering with local school districts, and the importance of communities, schools, and families on behalf of education," Holcomb-McCoy says.

Brooklyn College is also where Holcomb-McCoy began writing about the influence of racial, economic, and social inequities in education. "There are many barriers that close the door to access. We classically think of underserved populations as low-income students, students of color, first-gen students—those who are the first in their families to attend college—and students with disabilities." She adds that women are often blocked from opportunities to excel in the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math.

Her experience at Brooklyn College set her on a lifelong mission to level the playing field in education, increase diversity and inclusion, and ensure that no inequity or barrier would prevent a child from going to college. "My interest has always been how to create better educational conditions and experiences for underserved populations," she says.

Early elementary school is where Holcomb-McCoy sees the seeds planted that either lead a child to college, or don't. The reasons some children never get the chance at higher education are many and profound, and what drives her today is the urge to make college a real possibility for students who may otherwise never get the chance. "Students who have been historically low-performing may not necessarily receive equitable access to opportunities that make college a reality."

After Brooklyn College, Holcomb-McCoy went to the University of Maryland at College Park, and from there to the Johns Hopkins University as a professor of counseling and human development in the School of Education, a school ranked in the top five schools of education in the country. Working with faculty from across the university, she extended her applied research to Baltimore's public schools. She was eventually appointed vice dean of academic affairs in the School of Education and vice provost for faculty affairs for the entire university, where she pushed for faculty collaboration, mentoring, and diversity.

Holcomb-McCoy has long been in the forefront of efforts to include diversity and inclusion in higher education. Her efforts at Johns Hopkins led to an increase of diversity among the university's faculty. Holcomb-McCoy has been a consultant to the Obama administration's Reach Higher Initiative, and was one of the speakers at the White House's 2014 summit on higher education at Harvard. Her scholarship is prolific.

Holcomb-McCoy came to American University as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences' School of Education in July 2016. She is deeply impressed with the faculty. "They are already thinking about teacher education and retention, as well as policies that work in favor of our most vulnerable communities and families." Teacher retention in urban districts, she believes, will continue to be a critical issue. Without help, Holcomb-McCoy says, "We know that a significant portion of our new teachers will contemplate leaving the profession during their first year. At AU, we want to play a major role in ensuring that teachers remain in classrooms, ready and prepared to teach effectively."

Holcomb-McCoy's goals include increasing diversity among the faculty, increasing the internationalization of educators, seeking out external funding, encouraging rigorous research, expanding the School's reach into DC-area public schools and national organizations like Teach for America, and expanding programs in leadership and education policy. She hopes to make AU the go-to university for professional development and policy leadership.

She would also like to bring neuroscience education into the classroom, to help teachers understand how trauma and other stressors affect the capacity of children's brains to absorb lessons. "We need to teach how kids learn, especially kids exposed to trauma. We have research in neuroscience that's very telling about brain development, but it's not making it from the lab to the teacher in the classroom, who could actually use that research to make a difference. I would love to see us bridge those gaps."

For all her hopes for the School of Education, however, Holcomb-McCoy is deliberative. She is wary of what she calls "clever attempts to create change," big ideas for reform that wind up disrupting children's lives. "When it doesn't work, the kids, families, and communities suffer," she says. What does work? "We know that when families and communities and schools trust one another, and there is a seamless communication between all three, children learn. When there is lack of trust, it doesn't work."

Holcomb-McCoy is pleased that the School of Education's faculty members are now under one roof, in the building on Massachusetts Avenue that used to house AU's Washington College of Law. "I see my role as packaging this so that we're highly visible. My goal is to enhance what is already being done."

It's all, of course, in the service of children. Holcomb-McCoy may be the new dean of American University's School of Education, but says, "I am an early childhood educator and counselor at heart."