Women Shaping History:
Mary Brabeck, Dean,
The Steinhardt School of Education, NYU
The offices of Dr. Mary Brabeck, Dean of NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education, reflect her incredible passion for interdisciplinary fusion: colorful artwork fights for space on the walls, a complex yet subtly mirrored sculpture demands careful inspection, and a “constantly changing” collection of faculty-written books on all subjects adorn the shelves. From her office overlooking Washington Square Park, Brabeck reflects on an illustrious 25 year academic career that began in 1980 at Boston College and in 2003 brought her to “the largest private university in the world and the largest urban school district.”
If there’s one theme that defines Brabeck’s professional vision, it’s collaboration. “I see myself as a connector,” she says modestly about her lifelong quest to bring together disparate educational programs and professionals to try to improve the human condition. As Dean of the Boston College School of Education from 1996-2003, she focused on using the schools to connect children and families with a network of integrated services such as health care institutions and community service agencies. “About 45 percent of the variance [in student learning] is attributable to out-of-school factors. If you don’t remove the out of school barriers to children’s learning, even as you provide them with high quality teachers, you won’t reduce the achievement gap. Schools can’t do this alone; we have to partner,” explains Brabeck. Similarly, she worked hard to develop an inter-professional, collaborative model of teaching at Boston College. “I believe that the reason services are so disjointed in the real world is because in universities, we educate children in silos. Teachers don’t talk to psychologists, and psychologists don’t talk to lawyers, and so on,” Brabeck cautions. “We need to bring professions together…so that kids don’t fall between the cracks that professionals create.” Brabeck and her team also engaged in multi-pronged research initiatives to carefully document the success of educating the whole child. “We’re learning lots of things about how referrals to hearing clinics, dental clinics, and other resources remove barriers and increase attendance. And you now have kids in the classroom who are more inclined to learn,” she concludes.
At NYU, Brabeck was able to realize her dream with a Steinhardt mission statement that encourages cross-collaboration among schools, with overlapping curricula in psychology and education, visual arts, culture and communications, journalism and media studies, music and health. And—no surprise—she’s building bridges in her new back yard, albeit a larger one than Boston. A four year, $15 million grant-supported Partnership for Teacher Education is bringing together The City University of New York (CUNY), NYU (including both Steinhardt and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences), and the NYC Department of Education to prepare high quality teachers and to get more educators, particularly those in the fields of math, science, English language learning, and special education, in areas of New York City where there’s a shortage. Brabeck is understandably proud that “a district and a university can sit down together and say, ‘What do we know about teacher preparation?’ and then create something together…That’s huge!”
Brabeck traces her collaborative roots to her early days as a teacher in Bryant Junior High School in Minneapolis during a period of intense racial unrest in the early seventies. “We had to walk through armed National Guardsmen to get into our classrooms,” she remembers. “But then we got a new principal, Dave Roffers, and we got rid of the armed guards, we got the parents back into the schools, and we got the teachers collaborating. And I saw what a difference leadership makes.” Brabeck went back to school to get her Ph.D. in psychology because “I didn’t know enough,” and has since published more than 80 book chapters and professional articles, as well as a 2003 book chronicling her inter-professional collaborations at Boston College, entitled Meeting at the Hyphen:Schools-Universities-Communities-Professions in Collaboration for Student Achievement and Well Being.
In her modest, soft-spoken, yet articulate manner that has won her accolades nationwide, Brabeck looks forward to a new endeavor that will bring together schools of social work, medicine and education to maximize work on helping students with disabilities. Indeed, if there’s anything that sums up Mary Brabeck, it’s her parting statement as she delves into a pile of unanswered phone messages that await her: “I try to get as many circles as I stand in to be overlapping.”#