Sara Ray Stoelinga

Bridging Education Research, Practice and Policy

Sara Ray Stoelinga Reflects on the Urban Education Institute

Near the end of her undergraduate career in the College, Sara Ray Stoelinga, BA’95, MA’01, PhD’04, boarded a campus shuttle and happened upon a brochure for the Center for School Improvement, which was a precursor to the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute (UEI). Intrigued, she looked into the Center. “I ended up getting a lucky break that changed my life,” she says, landing an internship at the Center. She is now the Sara Liston Spurlark Director of the UEI, as well as a Quantrell Award-winning clinical professor on the Committee on Education.

For Stoelinga, “There is no such thing as a typical day.” A recent day included a meeting with university administration to discuss the future of UEI, a presentation to a group of graduate students, teaching an undergraduate class focused on education and social inequality, and a meeting with a University of Chicago Charter School 9th grader and parent about the student’s challenges and progress. “The Institute bridges research, practice and policy. As a result, I have the incredible opportunity to cross many boundaries,” Stoelinga says.

As the Sara Liston Spurlark Director of UEI, Stoelinga oversees the development of teachers, rigorous applied research, operation of schools and the distribution of models to improve schools nationally. The Institute has nearly 500 employees and a $43m operating budget, where, Stoelinga says, the mission “is about changing the odds for young people growing up in poverty, education is a lever to reduce social inequality.”

To illustrate the span of Institute’s work and influence,  Stoelinga pointed to the UEI’s New Knowledge Campaign, which illustrates the recent discoveries made under the Institute’s four units: the UChicago Consortium on School Research, the UChicago Urban Teacher Education Program, the University of Chicago Charter School, and UChicago Impact, which provides empirically-based education tools for teachers and researchers. “The New Knowledge Campaign illustrates the breadth and depth of the contributions UEI is making in research, practice and school improvement,” Stoelinga explains. The recent work described in the Campaign includes a new trauma-responsive model that helps aspiring teachers in UTEP learn to address students’ chronic stress in high-poverty contexts, cutting-edge research on how to understand student noncognitive factors that influence their learning, among others.  

The Institute’s mission is to create knowledge to produce reliably excellent urban schooling through discoveries in practice and in actionable research; and in bringing research and practice together.  The  To&Through Project, a project focused on making improvement in high school graduation and college attainment, is an example of bridging research and practice. Stoelinga says, “What is unusual about To&Through is the commitment to bringing together research, data, resources and training to make real improvement possible.” The UChicago Consortium conducted research to identify the important milestones to and through high school and college, UChicago Impact created a tool to examine those milestones, and  the Social Service Administration’s Network for College Success provides training and resources to support school teams in using the data to improve. This work has been a part of the Chicago Public School’s success in increasing high school graduation rates from 57% in 2006 to 74% in 2015.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Stoelinga would become so dedicated to education and community engagement. “It started with my parents,” she says, referring to her father, who was a theology professor, and her mother, who was a high school teacher and then a member of the human resource team for St. Paul public schools. This background demonstrated a commitment both to K-12 as well as  higher education. Then, while an undergraduate in the College, Stoelinga worked at Sue Duncan’s children’s center in north Kenwood. She also volunteered in the UChicago Neighborhood Schools Program. “I was working with young people from the moment I got to Chicago. Those experiences helped me to see the vast inequity that exists in our society.”

Stoelinga was a part of the precursor organization both when the University of Chicago opened its first charter school campus in 1998 and when it launched the University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program (UTEP) in 2003. Across her 22 years at UEI, Stoelinga was a classroom assistant at the UChicago Charter School North Kenwood Oakland campus, a faculty member teaching foundations courses in UTEP, a researcher at the Consortium and had a leadership role in the start-up of UChicago Impact. “It has been an honor to be a part of the work of UEI over many years and in a variety of different capacities,” she says.

Another unique aspect of UEI, Stoelinga says, is being embedded in the University of Chicago. This leads to the opportunity to collaborate with distinguished faculty like Susan Levine, Micere Keels (who works with UTEP on Trauma Responsive Schools) and Steve Raudenbush, whose new book (The Ambitious Elementary School, University of Chicago Press, McGhee-Hassrick, Raudenbush, and Rosen, forthcoming) focuses on the UChicago Charter School elementary school model. “We have just scratched the surface on what is possible in joint UEI-faculty work,” Stoelinga says.

In late 2016, Stoelinga had an opportunity to take her talents to another institution, but ultimately decided to remain at UChicago. She felt a calling to stay in the K12 space and to remain UEI’s leader and a clinical faculty member. “I am committed to and believe in the work that we’re doing,” she says.  

- by Claire Zulkey