Penn State education student sets sails to track hurricane's changes

May 16, 2008

University Park, Pa. -- In 1994, Brian Beabout began his Penn State career as an undergraduate studying engineering. In 2008, he is leaving Penn State a second time with a Ph.D. in instructional systems, focusing on urban school reform, to become a faculty member in the University of New Orleans' educational administration program. There were quite a few influences in Beabout’s life -- including a major natural disaster -- that changed his course of study and his personal direction.

The first was spending a semester at sea. Beabout spent his first two and a half years at Penn State in engineering, but knew his interest in it was waning. When he took to the seas, one of the professors onboard from the University of Houston brought along a videotape of Teach for America. The video changed his life.

"It looked like something I wanted to do, since I was sure my engineering days were over," Beabout said. "I wanted to work for people and do something challenging."

Beabout changed his course of study to liberal arts and received his bachelor's degree from Penn State in 1998. From there, he was accepted into the Teach for America program, which, according to its Web site, is the nation's largest provider of teachers for low-income communities.

Beabout relocated to New Orleans, where he taught English at Abramson High School, which was unlike any school he had ever seen. The graduation rate was less than 50 percent while the teacher turnover rate was 30 percent. If a student had four teachers one year, chances were at least one of them would be gone the next year. Many of his students were living below the poverty line, a lot were from single-parent homes and most of them had many challenges to face.

Although the Teach for America program is a two-year commitment, Beabout stayed at Abramson High School for four.

"I didn't feel comfortable leaving the job until I felt I had gotten good at it," he said. "The job of teaching in a culture different from your own becomes a lot easier after people know you. As a white man going into an almost all African-American school, there were a lot of stereotypes about me. But as time went by, I was more accepted, which made the job more satisfying."

The fact that Beabout loved music and food -- a perfect combination for a New Orleans resident -- and met his wife down there also helped.

While working at Abramson, the school received external funding for a computer lab, and Beabout was able to procure money to staff the lab through grants he wrote. This saved students hours they normally would have spent waiting to use computers at the public library. Although he saw some other small improvements in the school during his four years, he was still frustrated that the vast majority of students did not graduate and even fewer attended college. This made him want to look more broadly at the problem.

"The moral problem in the country is we tend to focus on middle-class schools to see what's wrong with them, but there are whole schools out there where the majority of the math department is filled with substitutes because they can't find teachers." Beabout said. "Problems are so severe in some places in the country, but they're not even part of the dialogue."

Although Beabout moved from New Orleans to teach in Mexico and Boston, the problems he saw at Abramson had left their mark. He said he realized as a teacher his impact in a failing school was limited because he could teach his heart out for six hours, but when students left his class and moved on to the next, they were just handed a book and told to read it. 

"There's only so much I could do, so I realized I needed to look to a larger level to impact the schools," he said.

Beabout was accepted into Penn State's instructional systems program in the College of Education in 2004, with the intent to connect with the broader education community and work with people trying to improve urban school districts. After Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, he organized a research team to study New Orleans teachers' reactions to post-storm educational reforms. He got good feedback, and people wanted to see more. When it came time for his dissertation, Beabout looked at principals who were leading new schools in the massively changed environment.

"I think Brian has a really clear image, after writing his dissertation, of what change looks like from the perspective of leaders," said his adviser and professor of education (instructional systems), Alison Carr-Chellman. "After a chaotic event like Katrina, he did some comparisons of Eastern Europe and the fall of communism to create a strong picture of what people want to embark on after a catastrophic event. Sometimes it takes something significant, like a government overthrow or hurricane that closes all the schools, to make a significant change."

There were quite a few notable changes in the New Orleans school system after Hurricane Katrina, including a growing number of charter schools and a whole new political structure within the school systems. Beabout spent a lot of time researching the differences, and according to Carr-Chellman, he overcame significant obstacles -- like funding his own trips to New Orleans to conduct his research -- while writing his dissertation.

"His passion and commitment drove him through the difficulties of his research," she said. "It was clear he got really connected to the issues of urban reform. When Katrina hit, he worked on trying to understand what happens to schools in really desperate situations."

Beabout said it's really too early to tell how the changes in the school systems will affect education in the city. But it was convenient that after applying for about 60 teaching positions, he was interviewed at the University of New Orleans for a faculty position. It was his best job offer, he said, and he'll be able to continue the research he already started at Penn State.

"I already have relationships formed so I can hit the ground running and make more of an impact," he said. "The life of a faculty member is a lot less structured than a high school teacher so I feel obligated to use that freedom in my schedule to write and do research."

  • Brian Beabout

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated November 18, 2010