Pitt Dean Builds Community, Works to Change Narrative of Equity in Education

Kinloch sitting on the floor with several children seated near her; parents and community members look on from a circle of chairs around themWhen Valerie Kinloch tells a story, people listen.

Those listeners recently included a group of excited toddlers at a Saturday afternoon Black History Month event held at Pitt’s Community Engagement Center (CEC) in Homewood. 

Kinloch, dean of the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh, led a special storytelling for the event’s littlest guests, taking a seat on the floor to engage the crowd of youngsters.

Kinloch recognized for research achievements

Earlier this month, Valerie Kinloch was named a 2019 American Educational Research Association (AERA) fellow. One of ten scholars to receive the award, Kinloch was recognized for her outstanding contributions to education research. AERA is “the largest national disciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning.”

Kinloch will be inducted at the AERA annual meeting this April in Toronto.

“Should we sit on the floor? Let’s sit on the floor together,” Kinloch said, balancing a children’s book in one hand and hoisting a child on her hip with the other. The other tots, drawn in by the excitement, crept and crawled their way closer to Kinloch.

Everyone in the room seemed to be drawn to Kinloch as she read from one of her favorite children’s books, “Don’t Touch My Hair,” by Sharee Miller. Kids enthusiastically repeated lines in the story. Parents, grandparents and other adults in the room didn’t take their eyes off of Kinloch and her young audience.

“Dr. Kinloch has a magical presence, a way of being, that allows many different kinds of listeners to understand the message she’s trying to enforce.” said Ani Martinez, field director of Remake Learning, where Kinloch also serves as co-chair. And at a recent Remake Learning Network Assembly, nearly 300 leaders in education seemed to agree as they, too, gave Kinloch their undivided attention.a group of four students wearing gray Pitt School of Education shirts standing with Kinloch in the center

A first-generation college student and a motivator

A lover of books, Kinloch said some of her favorite stories aren’t found in novels, but come from a person named Mr. Bradley — an older man who lived down the street from her childhood home in the segregated South. Kinloch said she listened to her neighbor share stories of hope and resistance, struggle and racism. She then retold those stories to her own family.

Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, Kinloch lived in a community full of people who she said deserved to have access to higher education but didn’t. Her mother wanted to be an educator, but was unable to follow that path. Her father, too, was never given a fair chance to enjoy school.

As she describes it: “Seeing people in your family experiencing oppression and being brutalized because they live in the segregated South, and because they’re black. Having a mother who cleaned homes on the other side of town and who wanted more. I don’t have a choice but to do the work,” said Kinloch. “I’m doing this work for her. I am also doing it for the people who aren’t here yet and who will look like me.”

Today, Kinloch speaks proudly of being the first African American woman to hold the title of dean at the University of Pittsburgh. She’s dedicated her work to strengthening the School of Education’s commitments to diversity, equity, justice, wellness, urban education and its community impact.

Eric Washington, a candidate for the Master of Education program, initially met Kinloch at another institution while he was touring graduate schools, but ended up coming to Pitt as a graduate student assistant in the School of Education.

“Dr. Kinloch is a motivator. She’s very inspirational. It’s the environment that she’s creating that makes her so supportive. Sometimes I don’t even know if she realizes how beneficial her presence is,” said Washington. “I have goals for where I want to be in life. And she’s never hesitated to let me know they are possible. She told me, ‘If I can do it, you can do it, and we all can do it.’”

Kinloch sitting next to a small girl at a table

Igniting learning in the community

Kinloch came to Pitt as the Renée and Richard Goldman Dean of the School of Education in July 2017 from the Ohio State University, where she was a faculty member in the College of Education and Human Ecology. Her work at Ohio State also included positions as chief diversity officer and the director of the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement.

One of her first orders of business at Pitt was to roll out a new mission and vision for the school. Kinloch listened closely to her colleagues’ ideas, then penned the mission-vision that reads like poetry and encompasses the theme “We Ignite Learning.”

In part, it states: “We ignite learning. We teach. We advocate. We work for justice. We think. We dream. We lead with integrity. We are the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh.”

Kinloch says her goal is to create a culture of dignity, integrity and respect, starting with instilling the fact that students, faculty, staff and alumni are equally important.  

Engaging with and supporting the community is at the center of Kinloch’s vision. Students in the School of Education to have opportunities to work with historically marginalized children in the Pittsburgh community. They’re also having conversations about race, racism and racial identity through programs with the Office of Child Development and the Center for Urban Education, both housed within the School of Education.

In addition, Kinloch has formed new partnerships with the CEC in Homewood and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

In fall 2019, the School of Education will have a permanent space in the CEC — a multipurpose room dedicated to afterschool programming, literacy workshops, wellness and a classroom space for Pitt Education students.

We ignite learning. We teach. We advocate. We work for justice. We think. We dream. We lead with integrity. We are the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh.

Excerpt from the school’s new mission-vision statement

Also in the works is the School of Education’s on-site learning and innovation space at Museum Lab, a project in conjunction with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, where it will be located, and Manchester Academic Charter School.

“I’m hopeful about this project because it is another way that members of our School of Education are thinking differently and intentionally about education,” said Kinloch. “By partnering on learning with middle school students and their educators at Museum Lab, we enrich everyone’s learning experiences and demonstrate a commitment to teaching and learning that is active, engaging and community-oriented.”

Kinloch says that building a culture of equity and respect is about having honest conversations.

“If we are committed to building the type of environment that is truly founded on equity and justice, we cannot do so if we are not listening to multiple stories from multiple people,” said Kinloch.

“We have to be committed to equity and justice. If it’s only for ourselves, that’s not a commitment. If it’s only to advance one’s own career, one’s aspirations, then it’s not a true commitment.”