Their Story – Paul Koehler
This is the second installment in a series of articles featuring the Board of Directors of College Success Arizona.
College Success Arizona is a 501(c)3 educational foundation founded in 2005, to increase the number of bachelor’s degree holders in the state of Arizona by providing scholarships and College Success Services to high potential, low-income students. The vision of College Success Arizona is to create an educated workforce ready to take Arizona into the future.
These articles are designed to give a more personal insight into each of our Board Members, to give them the opportunity to share why they care so deeply about Arizona, college attainment, and the mission of College Success Arizona.
1. Please tell us a little about your background.
“I was a teacher for ten years and I started by doing five years in the New York City public system. I actually grew up in the New York City area and my neighbor next door was the Chancellor of the New York City school system. He’s the one who told me to be a teacher. After I completed my undergraduate and was ready to head to George Washington University for my MBA, because of a federal budget freeze, my fellowship funding was cut and I had to figure out how I would pay for my education. What was initially supposed to be only one year, turned into ten because I loved teaching so much. After those ten years, I moved to Arizona and taught five years here after receiving my Masters from Brooklyn College and Ph.D from Arizona State University.”
2. What does your organization do?
“WestEd is a non-profit, non-partisan, education research and service agency. We have about 600 full-time employees, 17 offices around the country doing a lot of important education research. But we also transfer that research into action and that’s part of my job to work with policy leaders, state superintendents and governors to give them the benefit of what WestEd does in their research. We have about 13 programs at WestEd from early education to the culture and climate of schools and everything in between. A lot of math, science and literacy programs and just many direct services to schools. Those teams are very involved and work directly in the schools.”
3. How did you come to be associated with College Success Arizona?
“Through former Governor, Janet Napolitano. She was at a fundraising event in the state of Washington with a fellow breast cancer survivor, Christine Gregoire, who was then attorney general and later became governor of Washington. Janet called me and said, ‘I’m at a fundraiser sitting at a table next to a man named Bob Craves and he started a scholarship program up here that sounds terrific. He has a place in Scottsdale, can you meet with him?’ So the next day I talked to Bob Craves and found out all about the scholarship program he had started in Washington that helped students who were college ready but just didn’t have the funds to attend. The program sounded fantastic so I set up a meeting with Rodel, Inc. founder Don Budinger, Bob Craves and the governor. They wanted to bring what Craves was doing in Washington to Arizona and Budinger was a big supporter and that was the beginning of College Success Arizona.”
4. What is your vision for the Arizona of the future?
“I think if the state can understand its residents and what the opportunities are, it can be a great place. Right now the adults are fighting about the wrong things. They’re not looking at education attainment rates, college going rates or dropout rates. That has to change. My vision is that at some point there’s going to be more enlightened leadership in the state then there is now. People who see the potential of the state. We have a unique population that comes here because it’s just a great place to be. If we could get the education system worked out, this will be the next technology hub for the country. There’s going to be a new generation of leaders that come in that are really going to take hold of this place and move it forward.”
5. Why do you feel increasing Arizona’s College Attainment Rates is so important?
“The key for growing the economy in the right way is post-secondary education attainment. The Latino population is the majority under 18 but the college attainment rates for Latino students is 16.9%; you can’t put those two things together and be optimistic. Then you look at the drop-out rates and they’re much higher than they should be. It can’t stay like that. Again, if you’re an employer looking at the work force, these numbers don’t look good and then we end up with another call center which isn’t really good in building the economy.”
“I direct one of the federally funded comprehensive centers. There are 15 regional centers around the country, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, made to provide assistance directly to the education agencies and the chief state school officers and their executive teams. Also, about three years ago I started a project called the Arizona Mayor’s Education Round Table. It’s a group of 10 mayors, soon to be 16, and the purpose is to help them become more involved in education and easily providing them with tools that they can use in their cities or towns.”
7. What is your organization involved in?
“WestEd is located in a lot of different places so the work that we do affects many different areas. But also, we’re pretty big, but not huge, so we really pick the spots where we do our work. Our corporate value is to be the best in class so we are very focused about what we do, where we do it and the value.”
8. If you had a message for a student just beginning their college career, what would that be?
“Stay very flexible. You’re probably going to change your mind two or three times, so just get a really good foundational education when you start off. And definitely try to complete and get out on time.”
Elizabeth Parra Valenzuela is a Communication and Engagement Intern and attends the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.