“"My mission is to have a really collaborative arrangement among faculty, staff, students and community partners to enrich K-12 scholarship, enhance the curriculum and improve learning to prepare educated, engaged citizens who will help strengthen democratic values and contribute to the public good,"” says Gil Conchas, inaugural director of community engagement and student success for UCI’s School of Education. Steve Zylius / UCI

Evidence-based outreach

School of Education newcomer takes practical, positive approach to improving academic outcomes of underrepresented K-12 students

When Richard Arum, dean of the School of Education, joined UCI in 2016, one of his first orders of business was to create the position of director of community engagement and student success.

“The need to work collaboratively with diverse stakeholders is essential if we are to solve complex social problems like improving the quality of public education,” Arum says. “To do that, we needed someone to help guide our efforts and broker the relationships with community stakeholders. I wasted no time in reaching out to Gil Conchas last summer to take on this work. He has vast experience and a deep commitment to enhancing the lives of underserved kids.”

The son of Mexican immigrants, Conchas, who grew up in Ventura, knows firsthand the obstacles that low-income children often face. “I had to do my homework on the floor in the garage, because that was the only place where there was room enough for me to do it,” he says. “I came to the School of Education because I thought I could make an impact by helping to increase opportunities for underserved K-12 students.”

By overcoming such impediments and forging a career as a highly respected sociologist, Conchas serves as a role model for others from low-income backgrounds. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at UC Berkeley and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Michigan. Before coming to UCI, where he has taught sociology, Chicano/Latino studies and education, he was an assistant professor at Harvard University.

Conchas is also the author or co-author of several books, including The Color of Success: Race & High-Achieving Urban Youth, Small Schools & Urban Youth: Using the Power of School Culture to Engage Students and Streetsmart Schoolsmart: Urban Poverty & the Education of Adolescent Boys.

“My goal is to change the dialogue,” he says. “I want to reframe the conversation about ethnicity and academic success. Instead of asking why certain minority youth fail in school, we should be asking why so many succeed, despite profound opportunity gaps. What are the processes that led to their success, and how do we co-create systems that allow kids to learn and encourage their higher academic aspirations despite systemic inequality?”

Conchas believes that answers to those questions are found through active community engagement that facilitates K-12 students’ transition to postsecondary education. Those outreach efforts are based on local, state and national research that helps school districts identify factors that affect college pathways, the most difficult subjects and the most promising teaching methods for those subjects.

“Our work must be meaningful in the communities that we serve,” he says. “We can set a foundation from which we can provide evidence-based documentation of institutional practices and policies that help improve the academic outcomes of underrepresented students.”

In order to maximize support of community partners, Conchas is also very active in coordinating UCI’s existing outreach initiatives. Undergraduates from schools across campus volunteer as tutors and mentors in classrooms and after-school programs, and graduate students assist school districts in analyzing the results of various interventions. In addition, School of Education professors bring their real-world experience into the classroom, where they share the challenges and successes that future teachers will encounter throughout their careers.

“The most important way for us to have a central role in helping to tackle inequality head-on and to increase the number of students who earn a college degree is to leave our campus offices and get out into the community,” Conchas says. “For me, that’s been one of the most important and fulfilling experiences. I am committed to encouraging Orange County’s diverse student populations to plan for their future college education by positioning the School of Education to be the leader in outreach and engagement.

“As a land-grant institution, UCI is poised for a transformational undertaking on how teaching, research and service are relevant and useful to the citizens of Orange County, the state of California and the nation.”

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