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USC Education Dean: How Seattle brought me up

Guest Opinion: Growing up fatherless in Greenlake, Karen Symms Gallagher, Dean of USC's Rossier School of Education, had to learn to lean on her neighbors. Now that's informing her work in education.
Karen Symms Gallagher, Dean of USC's Rossier School of Education

Karen Symms Gallagher, Dean of USC's Rossier School of Education

I was 11 and living in Seattle’s Greenlake neighborhood when my dad died. My brother Jeff was 9. We had no family in Washington, and my mother turned to the community — to our neighbors, to the church, and to the schools to help her raise two young children.

She took a job in the mailroom of National Insurance (which later became SafeCo), and my brother and I became latchkey kids, with the mothers in the neighborhood watching over us. You’ve heard the phrase “It takes a village” and it truly does. In so many ways, Seattle and its people shaped who I am and my life’s work to transform education to serve all of our young people, especially those living in low-income and undeserved communities.

When I was a girl, our neighborhood families helped my brother and me continue to participate in scouts and clubs, and even took us to father/daughter and father/son events. My teachers and counselors at both John Marshall Junior High and Roosevelt High School were integral. In particular, my eighth grade science teacher and school counselor, Mr. John DuGay, took me under his wing and put me on the path to college.                  

At Western Washington University, it took a lot of small scholarships and me working two jobs to graduate. I restacked books in the library and served desserts and salads in the dormitory commons to help pay my way. I majored in political science — a funny idea for a woman in the late 1960s. At that time, I was one of only three women to do so. And, I was the first in my family to graduate from college.

In graduate school at the University of Washington, it was the same thing for me: more hard work and jobs to make ends meet. By this point, I had married my husband, Pat Gallagher, whom I had met at WWU.  Teamwork was critical, as we were both teaching and attending graduate school at UW.  I launched my teaching career at Shoreline's Kellogg Junior High — got RIF'd — went to Renton's Dimmitt Middle School, and ended up at Kenmore Junior High in the Northshore School District before leaving Washington for additional graduate school.

My educational journey isn’t so different from other urban students today in Seattle. As we all know, life isn't necessarily fair; you have to go with the hand you are dealt. My mom taught me to rally the troops and get the support you need – even under less than ideal circumstances. It has made me dedicated to building education environments where every student, regardless of personal circumstance, can learn and succeed.

You see, today I am the Dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, where it’s my privilege to help prepare teachers who are remaking our public education system. We do this work on our campus, and increasingly online through our Master of Arts in Teaching program. This fall we opened a charter school in downtown Los Angeles called USC Hybrid High, which uses an extended class day and school year -— as well as online tools — to ensure that 100 percent of our students graduate college-ready and career-prepared.

Later, when I was in graduate school in Indiana, I found myself relying on friends for the use of an apartment for my infant son and me when Pat had to live in another city for a work opportunity.  Another friend stepped up to baby-sit at important times while I was working on my dissertation. The point is — in Seattle or anywhere — don’t be timid about asking for help at any age or stage. 

Second lesson: make it public. I’m a big believer in stating my goals out loud. From an early age I said I would go to college, even though I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. I was not going to embarrass myself by not making it happen.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Oct 11, 5:17 p.m. Inappropriate

Safeco was never anything called National Insurance. Its name for many years was General Insurance, with a neon sign to match atop the old Brooklyn Avenue headquarters. Later it became the Selective Auto and Fire Insurance Company of America (Safeco). Despite the name change, Farwest Taxi drivers shortened the name of the University District to the "G.I."--for General Insurance, long after the old building and sign were demolished.

gabowker

Posted Mon, Oct 15, 9:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you for this excellent piece. You are in the right place at the right time.

Posted Sun, Jan 27, 10:20 a.m. Inappropriate

An underserved youth, really do you think people of color will buy into her slice of life story. Furthermore,our economic problems in the US intersect race, class, and gender. So surprisingly to even a scholar like myself, the present poverty figures include a large percent of the working class whites. During the Kennedy and Johnson administration, we had the ambitious project "War on Poverty" when Gallagher was a youth, but unfortunately opportunities fared better for whites than Blacks.
I attended the PhD program where Gallagher presides over as Dean, and contrary to her message that if you need help go seek it it is not true. Even if you are a stellar student with a high GPA, published with little advisorial mentoring, and come for help she is never accessible, and advises her mid level administration whitewash your problem. Other deans on the campus are not the same.
I usually am a positive person and am congratulatory when a person does a good job. Yes, she has boosted the ranking of USC Rossier School but whether it is qualitatively better is the question. It is rumored that there is a rift between our benefactor, Rossier and Dean Gallagher.

Posted Sun, Jan 27, 10:22 a.m. Inappropriate

And I forgot to add several of the minority students come from privileged families, one whose mother was a trustee of Cal Tech Pomona.

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