Rich Milner Paints His Picture of Urban Education in Pittsburgh

by John Conroy

H. Richard Milner IV sits in his office at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education’s Center for Urban Education. The center, on the fourth floor of Wesley W. Posvar Hall, is still being constructed and there is much to do, much like the difficult road ahead for Milner in his new position at the school. In early 2013, he was appointed not only director of the Center for Urban Education but also the Dr. Helen S. Faison Chair in Urban Education and professor of education. He officially began his role in August. Rooms are empty, carpets are torn up, walls are plain, and scaffolding is set up for painting. Establishing a solid foundation for the center is a microcosm of the work that lies ahead for him as he attempts to better Pittsburgh’s urban education community.

Milner came to Pittsburgh from Nashville, Tenn., where he was the Lois Autrey Betts Associate Professor of Education and Human Development; a founding director of the Learning, Diversity, and Urban Studies Graduate Program; and, most recently, associate professor of education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development. His wife, Shelley, and two daughters, Anna and Elise, are joining him in the next step of his journey.

The School of Education founded the Center for Urban Education in 2002 with a mission of researching and disseminating evidence-based methods for improving urban education in Pittsburgh and across the country. The center’s three main areas of focus are research and practice, regional service, and institutional advancement.

“We are fortunate to have Professor Milner joining the Pitt community,” says School of Education Dean Alan Lesgold. “The School of Education can now focus on urban education more broadly and especially on the ways in which the accumulated knowledge of multiple disciplines affords opportunities to work with the local community. Our goal is to learn how to create an overall environment—in and out of school—in which urban youth can successfully complete their precollege years.”

Milner is attempting to do something that at first glance seems fairly straightforward but is actually quite difficult and is emblematic of the overall complications: defining what urban education means.

“Urban communities are resource rich in terms of culture and human capital,” Milner says. “The challenge is to build intellectual, social, and educational bridges to connect youth and others to these important assets already present in urban communities.”

He views his overarching goal for urban education as a concentration on both in- and out-of-school factors that influence the educational experiences of children, which he discusses in detail in his fourth book, Start Where You Are, but Don’t Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps, and Teaching in Today’s Classrooms. “Challenges in and surrounding urban communities are so complex that it will take expertise from people across various walks of life and disciplinary backgrounds inside and outside of schools,” says Milner. “Part of my work is serving as a catalyst in bringing people with different expertise together to identify problems and develop solutions to address them. This is our center, and the work ahead will require contributions and commitment from many in the School of Education through my leadership.”

Growing Up

Milner was born to hardworking parents in a rural community, becoming a good student himself through the example they set. So what was it about urban education that interested him?

“I see how Black and Brown children and those who live in poverty are underserved and undereducated in educational systems across the United States and think it’s very easy for people to inaccurately blame families and say they don’t value education or the kids simply aren’t motivated,” Milner says. “Educators’ practices directly influence student motivation, involvement, and achievement in and out of school.”

Milner has a tendency to view the world in ways many people don’t. And it’s not simply within his work; it’s a personal viewpoint as well. “I have two daughters who live in a world where they’re going to experience life to a degree as two Black girls. They are blessed to have parents who can provide for them in ways some kids don’t have. But they are Black and female, so I understand their experiences will be shaped— some positively, some negatively— because of that,” he says.

If statistics were a predictor, Milner says that he probably isn’t supposed to be directing a center at Pitt. Those same statistics, he adds, also would suggest he shouldn’t have been the first African American to earn tenure at the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt. His ability, experience, and insight indicate, however, that his new position at Pitt is exactly where he belongs. And he looks at his new venture with excitement and an eagerness to produce positive change. “I’m honored to have this great opportunity to do something beyond myself, to really impact the community, and to build a center that can truly make a difference for so many children who are underserved in the community and school. I want the educational experience for all children to improve, and I know we can make a contribution.”

The Connection Between Student Identity and Teaching

Milner takes a systemic approach toward urban education, viewing what happens inside and outside the school as intrinsically linked. He says, “From an ecological perspective, there are community resources inside and outside of school that we just haven’t tapped into on behalf of families and children. We must shift the gaze from looking at the problems of the people to looking at the problems of structures, institutions, and systems. Building from an interdisciplinary perspective, we will work to transform communities to address human suffering on so many levels.”

For example, Milner points to students attending a high-poverty school with inconsistencies like underqualified teachers or constant substitute teachers, educators teaching outside their content matter area of expertise, inequitable funding, and teacher attrition. Milner explains that these inconsistencies “fall far beyond the control of students; they are institutional and structural challenges.” However, when these same students are placed in a high-functioning school, the result is a “completely different kid with a completely different outcome.”

Milner also talks about the importance of understanding how students’ identities influence how they interact with others and how they see the world. “I’m a Black man, so my experiences are shaped in some part by being Black,” he says. Milner mentions that the ability to understand the multiple identities of students is essential when it comes to teaching them. “It’s important to help teachers understand that they are teaching students with a particular history and who live and learn in a certain neighborhood. Understanding these complexities as they are connected to content students are expected to learn and teachers are expected to teach is key.”

Understanding the sociology of the school and community, according to Milner, is essential. “How do I demonstrate my capacity to teach a content lesson but also connect with those I’m teaching when I may not live a similar experience myself as an educator?” He hopes that as a professor in the School of Education, he’ll be able to “galvanize colleagues and partners” through the center to do relevant work that will improve student learning opportunities and outcomes.

Joining the School of Education

Milner prepared to lead the Center for Urban Education while simultaneously finishing up his work at Vanderbilt and moving his family from Nashville to Pittsburgh. So what convinced him to leave his home and position to join the School of Education?

“The opportunity to work with Alan Lesgold—his leadership style and vision are very appealing to me because I truly believe he is committed to improving the lives of students in urban environments,” he says. “Also, having the opportunity to make an impact through the center. During a visit, one of the deans at Pitt, Larry Davis [dean of the School of Social Work], said to me, ‘Make sure when you leave this Earth that you are not the only one who benefited from what you know and what you do.’ And I truly believe I am doing that with this move to Pitt. That comment resonated with me in important ways. I want my work to count and be transformative in the lives of urban youth. So I do this work with my head and heart because I have come to realize what life for youth can mean when individuals, structures, and systems are not in place to support them.”

Milner truly feels that this type of work begins inside the home, which is why he puts such a strong emphasis on his family. When asked about what he would like to be known for, he answers, “That I am outstanding husband and father. This work is important to me, but I realize my family will support me in ways that others can’t. They keep me grounded and remind me how blessed I am to be able to pay my gifts, skills, and talents forward.”

This passion in turn extends to his work. Milner wants to speak for those who don’t necessarily have a “seat at the table.” He adds, “I want people to say he spoke truth to power and wasn’t afraid to make people uncomfortable. I want people to say he had integrity, cared about people, and dedicated his life to making conditions better for others. In that sense, this work is beyond me. It is what I am called to do.”

Future of the Center

Milner’s main areas of concentration through the center will include a focus on race, poverty, and geography; teacher and administration practices; student learning, development, health, and motivation; family, community, and school partnerships; and policy and reform.

Milner has created four main anchors for the center for Urban Education:

  1. Galvanize Resources “Identifying and drawing from human and material resources and expertise that faculty, students, staff, and others possess to help the Pittsburgh community and beyond better serve urban youth”
  2. Knowledge Construction “Building a team of diverse individuals and a type of infrastructure to work together in order to build knowledge about problems and solutions in urban communities and education”
  3. Knowledge Dissemination “Regularly producing documents to ultimately lead the conversation and the practices related to what happens in urban education across the country and what needs to happen to improve it”
  4. Service to Schools and Communities “Using our collective resources to serve and partner with schools and communities to improve them”

His dreams for the center include hosting urban education conferences featuring researchers and practitioners from across the country as well as those from local Pittsburgh communities, universities, and surrounding areas. Other ideas include allowing students to develop their work through the center within and outside the School of Education related to problems and solutions in urban communities; developing and releasing policy and reform briefs, articles, and books; developing podcast interviews; and conducting a fall and spring major lecture series, featuring a more senior person in urban education in the fall and a newer scholar in the spring. “We will hit the ground running with this. The idea is to launch many of these initiatives within the first year.”

Despite all of the expectations ahead of him—not only from Pitt and the surrounding community but from himself as well—Milner is looking forward to the challenge of painting urban education in Pittsburgh with his own style. “I know it will take a lot of work, dedication, and perseverance, but I am capable of and committed to serving in this leadership role that has the potential to improve the lives of youth in Pittsburgh and beyond. I believe the answers to improving the human condition could actually lie in the work ahead through the center. I’m ready to do my part.”