An Immersive Education in Public Affairs Courses on urban trees, safe schools exemplify innovative undergraduate curriculum at UCLA Luskin

By Mary Braswell and Joanie Harmon

Growing up amid the ancient redwoods of Sonoma County, Amy Stanfield developed a deep connection to trees, even greeting her favorites by the names she gave them as a little girl.

“You can stand in the forest and then look up and you just have this very awe-inspiring feeling looking up at these insanely tall, old, historic trees,” Stanfield said. “Redwood trees are really just a symbolic and beautiful part of my life.”

So when the third-year public affairs major spotted a new course on offer in spring quarter — “Trees in the City,” taught by Associate Professor of Urban Planning Kirsten Schwarz — she quickly enrolled.

“I think all the students came to this course with a love of trees,” Schwarz said. “I don’t want them to lose that, but I do want them to think a little bit more critically about the role of trees in the city, and who might benefit from them.”

Trees tell a complex story, touching on water use, climate change, gentrification and even mundane considerations like sap falling on cars.

Schwarz’s course examines urban forestry through an environmental justice lens, weaving together social sciences, natural sciences and fieldwork with the Los Angeles nonprofit TreePeople.

It’s one of several innovative courses that illustrate the UCLA Luskin public affairs major’s emphasis on deep engagement in civic life and rigorous scholarship that draws from many disciplines.

Also new in spring 2021 has been Public Affairs 125, “Creating Safe and Welcoming Schools,” taught by Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor, an authority on school safety and student well-being.

Astor, who has a joint appointment with the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies, said he designed the curriculum with a holistic approach to enhance how universities prepare future educators, social workers, psychologists, administrators and policymakers.

“The new vision proposes that schools won’t just respond to crisis,” Astor said. “It will recognize the current inequities in the system and create school settings that uplift and inspire students — graciously creating a community of educators, peers and families that will elevate the aspirations of each child.”

The course incorporates lessons from more than a year of upheaval endured by schools around the country.

“The dual global pandemics of COVID-19 and our national reckoning with systemic racism after the murder of George Floyd focused a bright light on many blind spots we have as a society when we discuss and research school safety,” Astor said. “The two pandemics highlighted well-documented health, racial and geographic inequities, and started a widespread public conversation about them.”

Students in Public Affairs 125, “Creating Safe and Welcoming Schools,” learn to develop strong policy positions and convey them to the public using the power of media.

With her keen interest in education policy, Stephanie Tapia Onate was glad she could take the new course in her final quarter as an undergraduate.

“I like that it focused on improving the school environment. As a former student of the LAUSD public school system, I know that there’s a lot of work to be done,” said Tapia Onate, who will soon graduate with a public affairs bachelor’s degree, then pursue a master of public policy at the Luskin School in the fall.

What sets “Creating Safe and Welcoming Schools” apart, she said, is the opportunity to personally engage with a wide variety of experts and to develop the practical skills needed to deliver a policy message to the general public.

Astor’s lineup of guest speakers comes from an impressive array of disciplines, including education, public policy, social welfare, psychology, neuroscience, medicine and law. Scholars from UCLA and across the nation, as well as top officials from the Los Angeles Unified School District, have spoken to the class on topics that included racism, bullying, weapons and drug use, mental health and the unique needs of LGBTQ, homeless or undocumented students.

The course has an expansive view of how to make schools a safe space not just for students but for teachers and staff, Tapia Onata said.

“Teachers do deal with a lot of secondary trauma and sometimes they’re often forgotten in the conversation about mental health resources in schools,” she said. “They are one of the communities at school that we do need to support.”

Students in Astor’s class learn to develop strong policy positions then communicate them to the public through op-eds, TED Talks and TikTok campaigns.

Tapia Onate chose to create a series of one-minute policy videos on TikTok, a platform now used frequently for educational outreach as well as entertainment.

“It’s straight to the point, it can deliver your message really fast, and people are more likely to remember what you say in a short video,” she said.

Immersion in civic life is also central to the “Trees in the City” curriculum. During their quarter-long partnership, students worked with TreePeople to fill the nonprofit agency’s most immediate need — turning a voluminous amount of information about the benefits of trees into messaging tailored to local communities.

One team of students developed a school curriculum on the importance of trees that aligned with Next-Generation Science Standards; they even identified sources of potential funding that TreePeople could pursue.

“Students were really interested in ways that environmental stewardship and curriculum centered around trees could be introduced early on,” Schwarz said.

Amy Stanfield said her team chose to highlight the wisdom of those who “lived on the land the longest and most successfully” — Los Angeles’ Indigenous communities.

Through case studies and an infographic, the team demonstrated how to incorporate time-tested traditions into Westernized systems and provided resources to residents who want to connect with local Indigenous leaders.

“We wanted to center our project on amplifying Indigenous people’s voices in the science world and in this type of urban ecology setting,” Stanfield said.

In a happy coincidence, her work with TreePeople will continue next year as she interns with the nonprofit group for her senior capstone research project.

“Trees in the City” has been a perfect match for Stanfield’s interests, which blend ecology, policy and urban planning, as well as film. She is grateful for the personal attention that Schwarz gives each of the 14 students in the upper-division class, and for the interactive curriculum that has deepened her understanding of urban greenspaces.

“Everyone in my college life can’t hear me say enough about it,” Stanfield said. “I get done with class and say, ‘You guys, my tree class is making me so happy!’ ”

Astor on Protecting Children as They Return to Classroom

Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor spoke to K-12 Dive about concerns surrounding the safety and well-being of students as they return to the classroom following a year of living through COVID-19. In addition to pandemic-related stressors, students have witnessed enormous racial and political upheaval, creating “a swirl of different variables that make me really worried,” Astor said. “Kids are coming in with suitcases of really horrible experiences.” Bracing for an increase in threats of violence and self-harm, many school administrators have prioritized physical and mental health rather than nosediving into academic recovery. Astor called on principals to create a welcoming place for students and a supportive environment for teachers. “At least for this year, the next year and the year after, our school is not only about academic achievement,” he said. “We are going to go out of our way to [build] social-emotional friendships, so that our school becomes the ideal of what we hope society to be.” 

Astor on Role of Racism in Unsafe Learning Environments

Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor co-authored a Journal of School Health commentary on the importance of factoring in structural racism when developing strategies to prevent school violence. “Microaggressions and bullying associated with skin color can result in a pathway of increased alienation from and decreased engagement in school, both of which can increase the probability of harm to self and others,” wrote Astor and co-author Marc A. Zimmerman of the University of Michigan. Unconscious biases may surface among staff making threat assessments as well as among teachers who send implicit messages that reduce academic motivation among Black, Latino, Native and immigrant students. Economically disadvantaged campuses typically have fewer resources for social and emotional learning, relying instead on target-hardening strategies such as metal detectors and school safety officers — a signal that schools are not a welcoming place. “It is time we pay particular attention to the role racism plays in creating unsafe learning environments for our children,” the authors wrote.

Astor Links ‘Opportunity Structures’ to School Safety and Equity

Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor co-authored an article for School Psychology Review that delineates the need for new studies on how opportunity structures — factors such as geographic location, gender, race, religion, nationality, ethnicity and family background — influence and shape patterns that impact school safety, school climate and bullying. The concept of opportunity structures has historically been used to study equity in the labor market. In education, it has been used to describe systemic racism in educational inequality. The authors apply school-centered ecological theory as a conceptual framework that links opportunity structures and school safety. They recommend further research on communities and families, creating positive school cultures and climates, and different types of educator bias that restrict opportunities and result in less safe environments. Astor, the Crump Professor of Social Welfare at UCLA Luskin, also holds an appointment with the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies. His work examines the role of the physical, social-organizational and cultural contexts in schools related to different kinds of bullying and school violence, including sexual harassment, cyberbullying, discrimination hate acts, school fights, emotional abuse, weapon use and teacher-child violence. Astor’s co-authors are Pedro Noguera, dean of USC’s Rossier School of Education; Temple University Associate Professor Edward Fergus; University of Pennsylvania Professor Vivian L. Gadsden; and Rami Benbenishty, professor emeritus at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. — Joanie Harmon

Astor on Fears of Unreported Child Abuse

Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor spoke to EdSource for an article on the steep drop in reports of child abuse in California since the COVID-19 pandemic closed school campuses. With teachers no longer seeing students in person in most parts of the state, advocates say thousands of cases of child abuse may be going unreported, the article noted. In a recent survey of school social workers, 59% said they felt the pandemic is compounding child abuse and neglect, at least to a moderate degree. Astor, part of the research team that conducted the survey, said that schools, especially those in low-income neighborhoods, must become community hubs where families can get food, health care, mental health services, and job and housing resources. “Everyone needs to be shifting their roles right now because the pandemic isn’t going away any time soon,” Astor said. “If we help these families, they won’t forget. They’ll remember that school can uplift you.”

Astor Briefs Congress on Social Work and Student Well-Being

Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor appeared at a congressional briefing focused on how social workers can help provide for the safety and educational achievement of students in light of calls to remove police from public schools. Many U.S. schools are patrolled by safety officers yet have no counselors, nurses or social workers on staff, adding to inequities that are deeply felt by Black, Latino, Native American and rural communities, Astor said. He called for a holistic national plan that re-envisions the role of schools in providing key social services to families struggling to feed, house and provide health care to their children. “There are needs at a mass scale that we probably haven’t seen in our country since the Great Depression,” said Astor, citing a recent policy brief he co-authored. Astor urged policymakers, education professionals, social workers and scholars to work together on a master plan that considers these core questions: “What do want our schools to look like in our country? What kind of democracy do we want to have? Should the zip code of a child dictate the kind of resources and opportunities they have?” The Sept. 23 online briefing was sponsored by a broad coalition of national social work organizations in conjunction with the Congressional Social Work Caucus, chaired by Rep. Barbara Lee of California. “We’ve got to bring the power of social work back to the schools,” Lee said during the briefing. “It is a matter of justice, and social workers are known for fighting for justice for everyone, especially our children.”

Astor Says Student Hunger Demands a National Solution

Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor penned a commentary for CNN calling for a national plan of action to address the increase in child hunger in the wake of COVID-19. Astor, who recently published a research brief on social workers’ recommendations for reopening schools this fall, wrote that many students’ basic needs – such as food, housing and mental health – are not being adequately addressed. “Students are hungry today,” he wrote. “They cannot wait to eat only after a vaccine is found and distributed.” Pre-pandemic, approximately 5 billion free or reduced-price lunches were served to students across the country each year. Now, collective national action is urgently needed to make sure these schoolchildren do not go hungry, Astor argued. He called for expanded government funding, a public-private collaboration among food banks and food industry partners, and a redeployment of school police forces to reconnect the school and community in a spirit of care rather than feeding the school-to-prison pipeline. 


 

Astor on Schoolchildren, Trauma and COVID-19

Education Week spoke to Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor about ways school systems can support students struggling with toxic stress. A nationwide survey of school social workers conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic found “profound, immediate, urgent needs” related to health, housing, food instability and other issues. Astor, who co-authored the study, said many schoolchildren dealing with toxic stress will need a wide range of services that go beyond basic trauma-sensitive instruction, which focuses on building up social and emotional skills in addition to academics. “To do a trauma-informed-care school where everybody’s focused on great interactions, but 80% of your kids are hungry, doesn’t make sense,” Astor said. Schools, government agencies and community groups must work together to provide a multi-tiered system of academic, social and basic living supports, “not in a crisis mode … but for the long-term, like you would in a war,” Astor said.