Burke Scarbrough teaches a WRT 105 course called ‘Reforming American Public Schools.” Scarbrough a Margaret E. Warner School of Education and Human Development Ph.D student in teaching and curriculum engages UR undergrads in an issue that no student has yet to denounce: the disparities and shortcomings of public schools in America.

When he graduated from his master’s program at Duke University, Scarbrough helped start up the Martin Luther King, Jr. High School in a notorious building in the upper westside of Manhattan, where he was the only English teacher.

What’s the biggest transition from teaching high school to undergraduate students?
There are a lot of things that are easier about it. This is an institution that selects for people who are already successful students who are engaged in class. So there are a lot of things I can expect or demand from students from the very first day here that in high school, you had to build those relationships and that trust and that engagement with school. It was always like a sales act in some ways … to convince them that it is worth their time to get involved with what I’m trying to do with my class. Here the students chose the class, they chose the University, the University chose them, so a lot of things are easier.

What is one of the more overlooked aspects of school reform? For instance, mayoral control. What points are they missing?
With mayoral control, I feel like the distinction between having a group of amateurs run a school district and having an appointed autocrat running the school district those are both cynical words to use, but I’m talking about a school board vs. a chancellor or a mayor, or whoever the mayor appoints those differences can be relatively superficial, and they get treated like enormous differences. I worry that if the issue of mayoral control gets so much attention, that people will expect the change, whether it’s change in mayoral control or shooting it down, that someone will expect that decision to either make or break the school system.

Of course, people don’t really think that. If you ask somebody if mayoral control is going to be the solution to schools, they’ll say no. But the way it gets talked about in the media, I worry that some of the bigger issues get overlooked. And for me, in terms of where I come from politically and what I focus on at the Warner School, those bigger issues usually have to do with segregation and inequality, and people really disagree about what to do about that.

What do you like to do on your free time?

Being a graduate student means you have a different relationship to free time. It’s easy to have a lot of guilt for having free time. One of the things I love, besides teaching, is to play piano. Which is an intimidating thing to like to do in this town, because we have a rather impressive musical school, but I’ve been playing pop and jazz piano for a long time. Not in a band, not publicly, but it’s a relief for me, it’s a stress relief.

Nathaniel is a member of the class of 2011.

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