Ithas been nearly half a century now, but Kris Gutiérrez can still picture her school days in Miami, Ariz., a small desert town 90 miles east of Phoenix. She can still see her teachers, spurring her on through another project; her father, coming to another school function after a long day in the copper mines; her friends, cramming for an upcoming exam.
Yes, but they’re also the foundation for Gutiérrez’s groundbreaking work at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Colorado (CU), where she has embedded her research in local commu-nity needs and real-life practice.
“I’ve been thinking about these designed environments for two decades now,” says Gutiérrez, who holds the inaugural Provost’s Chair at CU. “In Miami [Ariz.], there was an environment that supported education, from the school to the parents to generations of students who valued education. The mines were very rich; the economy was stable; there was low unem-ployment. You had a lot of stability. There was an ecology that supported education. I used that experience to design these programs.”
But her contributions extend well beyond CU and UCLA, where she was a professor of social research methodology in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
At UCLA, for example, Gutiérrez helped develop the Migrant Student Leadership Institute, an intensive one-month academic and leadership skills program for high-achieving students from throughout California’s migrant farm-working community Like a page from her own past, young people bloomed in UCLA’s academic-rich atmosphere.
A national leader in education and urban education, in particular, Gutiérrez served on President Obama’s Education Policy Transition Team, is president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), has held prestigious positions as a scholar in Japan and Canada, frequently speaks at international conferences, and was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford in 2006-07. Gutiérrez was also recently elected to the National Academy of Education and nominated by President Obama to be a member of the National Board for the Institute of Education Services.
Much of her recent work has been centered on AERA, a 95-year-old organization that represents 25,000 educational researchers in the United States and throughout the world.
“I’ve been very focused on thinking of AERA more as a go-to place for policymakers,” she says. “I want to use our thorough, vigorous research to influence policymaking.”
Adds Lorrie Shepard, dean of Colorado’s School of Education: “Professor Gutiérrez is not content to merely use complex theories to describe what is. She is very influential.”
While growing up in Miami, where ore has been dug from the ground for more than 135 years, Gutiérrez aimed for a future as a teacher. After earning her undergraduate degree at Arizona State University (ASU) in English and reading, she taught in a public school for a couple years and then returned to ASU.
“They needed someone who could teach writing, and writing in partic-ular to Latino students,” she says. “So I took the offer, and there I was at the university, as a baby, much earlier than I had planned. I just knew it was where I wanted to be. I knew I had to get a Ph.D. – one, because I love learning, and two, to have the kind of influence that I wanted to have.”
At CU, she was identified as a rising your star in the graduate school of education. Armed with a newly minted doctorate, Gutiérrez joined the UCLA faculty in 1989 as an assistant professor of education in the division of administration, curriculum and teaching studies – now the division of urban schooling. A familiar figure in Los Angeles area schools, she con-ducted long-term ethnographic studies across various school districts. Traditional programs have been designed with little regard for the people who were supposed to benefit from them, she says. Her research examines learning in designed learning environments.
“I loved UCLA. It was the best place in the world, a place to work with the best researchers in the world. It also gave me an opportunity to work exclu-sively with populations that are low-income and underserved,” she says.
It didn’t take long for Gutiérrez to make an impact in Southern California, where her projects included a computer-based learning club for students at an elementary school near the Los Angeles airport. Supervised by UCLA undergraduates, the children played board games, computer games and used digital storytelling designed to motivate them and develop their problem-solving and literacy skills.
“It was based on what we had started in Colorado many years before,” she says. “The goal was to help students develop good program-solving and literary skills through undergraduates we brought to the school. We partnered with computer scientists and cognitive scientists on campus to bring high technology to the after-school program.”
Next Gutiérrez helped develop the Migrant Student Leadership Institute, designed to provide participants with a glimpse of university life. California has the largest migrant student population in the nation, according to the Department of Education. But cultural and language barriers, frequent relocation and economic pressures make getting a high school education a formidable goal, much less college.
But the Migrant Student Leadership Institute enables them to live in the dorms for a month, take a couple of courses, participate in leadership training and get to know students from across the state.
Roughly 50 percent of students applied to the University of California system, with an 85 percent acceptance rate, compared to only 25 percent applying from the control group, with a 75 percent acceptance rate.
The underlying theme – “Yes We Can” – was evident at one graduation ceremony when students broke into a “migrant clap,” a burst of short claps that begins slowly, then picks up speed and force. Farmworkers have used it to spur one another on for hundreds of years.
“People generally think that by the time students are in high school it’s too late,” Gutiérrez says. “We showed year after year how wrong that was. Our students had an extraordinarily high college-bound rate. I hear from them all the time. ‘Thanks for the migrant program; this experience really changed my life.’ ... They’re in graduate school, they’re teachers. So we’ve actually seen the fruits of that program more than any other.
“It was more of a social design experience, where we bring the best of what we know to really serve a population that by all measures is one of the most vulnerable student populations in the country. We had amazing support from the university, from our department, from our school. I think people understood how the university benefited as well as the children. Our job was to show the project was based on sound research and princi-ples of learning.”
The program helped Gutiérrez gain a spot on President Obama’s transi-tion team, the latest in a long list of honors. Gutiérrez received a UCLA Department of Education Distinguished Teaching Award in 1996, the Harriet and Charles Luckman UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award in 1997 and a Spencer Foundation Mentorship Award in 1997. She was director of the Education Studies Minor and of the Center for the Study of Urban Literacies. In 2007, she was appointed to a three-year term on the U.S. Department of Education’s Reading First advisory committee, and her research has been published widely in elite academic journals.
“She is known equally as an exemplary methodologist, an insightful theorist, an effective program developer and as a well-grounded empirical researcher,” Shepard says.
“She is acutely aware of past practices that deny opportunities for acad-emic success to children from nondominant communities ... and uses her exquisite understanding of supportive learning environments to design programs that rigorously ensure students’ competence and confidence.”
The American Educational Research Association’s presidential gavel passed from Carol D. Lee of Northwestern University to Gutiérrez at the 2010 convention in Denver. The governing council passed a resolution say-ing it wouldn’t hold meetings in Arizona until the state’s then-new contro-versial immigration law is rescinded, with Gutiérrez wearing an altered conference name badge that read “I could be illegal.”
While preparing her presidential address for the 2011 convention, Gutiérrez focused on another part of Arizona.
“My father was a copper miner, meaning he had shift work. But I was telling him the other day that my parents never missed one parent-teacher conference, one activity – and believe me, I was in all of them. My parents would go to the library to help me do research.
“The whole town was supportive. In my president’s speech, I’m writing about resilient ecologies, and how I used that life experience.”