Improving Educational Outcomes

Mavis Sanders ’87 

By Alicia Villarosa

Mavis Sanders, PhD, is on a mission to improve literacy and overall educational outcomes in underserved communities of color in Baltimore and beyond. That mission took on new life at Barnard, where she served as a budding high school teaching intern in the Bronx. “I’ve always loved children and I’ve always loved learning,” Sanders says. “But I never thought about a career in urban education until I discovered Barnard’s [urban teaching] program.”

Today, Sanders is the inaugural director of the Sherman Center for Early Learning in Urban Communities at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). She is building a program deeply rooted in the community it serves, drawing upon research she conducts with her students about collaborations among schools, families, and communities. Having served previously as a professor of education and research scientist at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University for sixteen years, Sanders is now also a professor of education at UMBC.

The Birmingham, Alabama native was raised to appreciate the importance of the kind of interpersonal connections she studies. In her close-knit neighborhood, there was always a sense of the collective. While many programs aimed at improving educational outcomes are strictly data-driven, the Sherman Center takes a different approach. Instead of using a one-size-fits-all template to implement agendas, the Center teams up with schools, families, and communities to develop more effective early-education practices for urban schools. “We get input from principals, parents, educators, and researchers to create an interactive approach to educational improvement,” Sanders explains. “It’s an authentic partnership built on collaboration and communication.”

Sanders’s path has never strayed far from education. Once she earned her degree at Barnard, she joined the Peace Corps and spent two years teaching English in Papua New Guinea. She went on to Stanford, where she earned her master’s degree in sociology in 1992 and a PhD in social sciences, policy, and educational practices in 1995. That led her to JHU, where she designed and directed a graduate certificate program focused on collaborative leadership for schools, families, and communities. Her sixteen years at JHU, where she worked extensively with Dr. Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships and the National Network of Partnership Schools, were “career defining,” she says. “The theory and research that guided our work then guide me still. For us, ‘It takes a village’ to improve learning experiences and outcomes for all students is not just a hackneyed phrase—it is an educational-reform approach.”

Sanders has authored or co-authored more than sixty journal articles and book chapters, enabling schools to strengthen curricula and implement the collaborative programs she designs to ensure African Americans’ academic success. Sanders sees her current work as only the beginning of an effort to pioneer educational best practices. “As we scale up,” she says, “I hope that the Sherman Center can be a model for other programs. Our goal is to find the best ways to inspire and prepare young children in urban schools for lifelong learning.” •

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