Dr. Tammy Schwartz

Dr. Tammy Schwartz with students in news

Dr. Tammy Schwartz is the Director of the Urban Cohort and a faculty member in the College of Education, Health and Society at Miami University. Her deepest interests include the educational experiences of children who are marginalized for any reason and the preparation of resilient and community-minded teachers who are equipped to ensure the success of marginalized children.

Her passion for this work is rooted in her history as an urban child living with poverty and as an urban public school teacher. She holds great hope for the future of public education.

Business Courier features Dr. Tammy Schwartz in the following article published June 3, 2011

In 1975, on a school bus to Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts, sixth-grader Tammy Schwartz peered out the window at a world far from Price Hill—a world beyond food stamps, public housing, dangerous streets and an unstable family.

"That was a pivotal moment," said Schwartz, now 46. "I got on the bus and I saw a different way of living."

Now an instructor of education and director of the Urban Cohort at Miami University, Schwartz works to change the lives of inner-city Cincinnati kids with the same tool that changed her own life—education.

Each year, with field studies, student teaching and volunteer work, the program immerses Miami students in the urban environment. That kind of training is critical to success in big-city teaching, Schwartz said.

"One, I lived it,” she said. "Two, I taught in urban schools. And three, Miami students are really smart and hardworking. I want really smart, hardworking individuals in public classrooms to be really great teachers for kids.

Schwartz was born in 1964 to teenage parents in Covington. Before she started the second grade, her parents had split and she had moved five times—with her mother and two younger siblings—from one subsidized housing complex to another.

Her mother struggled to provide the basics, even food. One summer when Tammy was 7, her mother had no choice but to leave her children in the care of their father and paternal grandparents.

On the day she moved, Schwartz sat in the back of her father’s car, trying to comfort her sobbing younger sister, all their belongings crammed into the trunk.

"It didn’t feel like it was happening to me," she said.

The move meant food on the table every day, clothes in the closet and better schooling. But her new life was far from perfect. Her dad had a temper that erupted at least once a week. And she had no idea where her mother was.

At age 8, Tammy placed an ad in a community paper, asking her mother to call. There was no response. Then, on her ninth birthday, a photographer for the Kentucky Enquirer snapped her picture as she played in a field of Black-eyed Susans. The paper published the photo alongside a sentimental poem about childhood.

"The poem was about a carefree kid and I was anything but," Schwartz said.

This time, her mother saw the picture in the paper. And she came to see her kids.

"It was like being able to breathe," Schwartz said. "It was like you’d been holding your breath for two years. I felt: ‘Oh, my God, thank God almighty, I’m free at last.’"

Seven years to earn a degree

For a time her mother visited on weekends. Then, when she could provide a place for all of them to live, she took the children back. For several years, as her mother took low-paying jobs as a fitness instructor, then as a waitress, the family got by—sometimes on her wages, sometimes on public assistance. They bounced from one subsidized apartment to another.

When Tammy was 10, she was accepted into Cincinnati’s School for Creative and Performing Arts.

"The faculty was committed to their students and their education, but it was a really difficult transition," she said. "I went from a poor neighborhood to a school that is like Miami."

The school was demanding, but it became her refuge from the drugs and crime that were rife at her apartment complex in Price Hill.

"I pretty much grew up never feeling safe, always feeling like I had to ignite this sixth sense so I could feel danger coming,” Schwartz said. “But I felt safe at school. I felt productive at school in meaningful ways."

With support from her teachers, she was accepted at Webster College in Springfield, Mo. But funding lasted just one semester. She found support for two years at Hunter College in New York, but again the money ran out. Finally, after seven years of trying, she earned a degree in elementary education from the University of Cincinnati in 1989.

After two years of elementary teaching and four years in middle school, she earned master’s and doctoral degrees at UC, then joined Miami’s faculty in 2001. In 2009, she was invited by Carine Feyten, dean of Miami’s College of Education, Health and Society, to direct the Urban Cohort.

"Because of her passion, commitment and firsthand experiences with the community," Feyton said, "she has a deep understanding of the population, she builds respect and she makes this work."

Most teacher candidates are white women from the middle to upper classes, while increasing numbers of urban schoolchildren are black, Latino and poor. Culture shock is all but inevitable. Schwartz recalled a recent graduate—not a member of the Urban Cohort—who said: "I learned all the technicalities. I went into this environment, and their lives are different than mine and they learn in a different way."

"I don’t want them in there without having a deep understanding," Schwartz said of her students. "I can teach you all the methods and all the knowledge, but if something hasn’t shifted in here"—she pointed at her heart—"then all those things don’t mean a thing."

When Schwartz’s charges are ready to student-teach at Rothenberg Preparatory Academy in Over-the-Rhine, they move right into the neighborhood as part of Miami’s Residency Program.

"They see the community in a different way than the media often portrays," said Tom Dutton, professor of architecture and director of Miami’s Center for Community Engagement. "They have conversations with a homeless guy on a stoop and the stereotypes fall."

Brittany Webb, who graduated in May, discovered the Urban Cohort her first semester at Miami.

"Urban kids are really a population that has been left behind," she said. "They are pushed aside. I couldn’t stand that they were getting less of an education because of where they came from. I wanted to be a part of changing that."

Webb taught third grade at Rothenberg Preparatory during the semester that has just ended. With other students in Miami’s Residency Program, she lived in apartments on 14th Street next to Music Hall, just 10 blocks from the school.

Before Webb taught in Over-the-Rhine, she heard Schwartz tell the story of her own life.

"It was almost comforting in a way," Webb said. "She wasn’t saying what she has observed or what she thought happened. She was saying how it really was. It made it that much more meaningful because she was physically in the shoes of the students that I am so passionate about now."

Schwartz says once Miami students hear about her past, they open up about their own lives.

"I tell them to ‘wear who you are’ and wear it proudly," Schwartz said. "When they open up, it’s like when I saw my mom and I felt like I could breathe. I could feel that same sense of exhale with the students – ‘I can be who I am.’ That moment is why I’m here. That’s why I’m at this university. "

The above article is Premium content from Business Courier by Elizabeth Hagedorn, Courier Contributor
Date: Friday, June 3, 2011, 6:00am EDT