With a Ph.D. in Urban Education at Age 78, a Grad Finds a New Mission

May 30, 2023

Jane Quinn, an architect of the community schools movement, returned to school in retirement to make a difference in a new way.

Jane Quinn headshot
Jane Quinn (Ph.D. ’22, Urban Education)

Jane Quinn was doing the sidestroke in a pool in Brooklyn a few years ago when she realized what she’d do with the rest of her life, after she retired. She’d get a Ph.D.

A vice president of the Children’s Aid Society at the time, she had wanted to retire to allow the people she had mentored to move up. But, at her husband’s urging, she refused to do so without a plan.

With the revelation, she jumped out of the pool. “I ran home,” she said. “I told my husband. He was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so perfect for you.”

At age 74, Quinn started a Ph.D. in Urban Education at the Graduate Center, and this spring, just shy of her 79th birthday, she is graduating. Along the way, she found a new mission: to influence policymakers to improve after-school programming for students from low-income families.

During a 50-year career as a social worker and social work administrator, Quinn had sought to create better opportunities for kids in disadvantaged urban communities, to, in her words, level the playing field.

Learn More About the Ph.D. Program in Urban Education

She made a difference through direct service and as an administrator.

At the Children’s Aid Society, Quinn directed an effort to create community schools — schools that partner with community service organizations to provide academic enrichment, health services, parental support, and the like — across the country and abroad. The society currently operates 22 community schools in New York and has been a pioneer in creating them. Quinn is considered an architect of the community schools movement.

Her work with schools began in 1971, when as a newly hired social worker at a health department-run clinic in Washington, D.C., she walked across the street to the local elementary school to learn what services the school needed. The answer: sex education. Quinn wound up creating and implementing a sex education program at that school and, as word spread, at schools across the city.     

She parlayed that experience into a director role at the Center for Population Options and then at Girls Clubs of America (now Girls Inc.), where she designed pregnancy prevention and health education programs as well as a National Science Foundation–supported computer literacy program and a sports program.

In the 1990s, Carnegie Corporation of New York recruited her to lead a study of how adolescents from low-income families spent their time outside of school and how community service organizations did and could meet their needs. The study led to a 152-page report, A Matter of Time: Risk and Opportunity in the Nonschool Hours, released in 1992, which is credited with kickstarting the community schools movement.

Despite her successes, Quinn longed for a Ph.D. “I was, for decades, a consumer of research,” she said. “But I always wanted to look behind the curtain and see how you made it happen.”

She also wanted to influence education policy, an area that she had little experience in. “I think if you're going to make a big difference, you've got to get involved in policy,” she said.

The Graduate Center’s Ph.D. in Urban Education “was the only program that had what I was looking for,” she said. “It had a real focus on research, and it had a real focus on urban education.”

Jane Quinn at the commencement
Jane Quinn at Commencement on June 2. 

And she liked that the program had faculty, like Professor David Bloomfield (GC/Brooklyn, Urban Education), who specialized in policy. She had seen his quotes in The New York Times and wanted to meet him. “He has lots of opinions; he has a deep knowledge,” she said.

In her application, she wrote that she intended to study the federal policy that governs the funding of most after-school programs that serve low-income students with an eye toward improving the legislation so that it addresses the growing inequity between the nation’s most and least advantaged students. And that is what she did.

“I said to myself and to several people around me, ‘I'm too old to do a bullshit dissertation,’” she said. “I was like, I want to do something that has a chance of making a difference in producing positive social change. And I knew a lot about after-school programs.”

In her dissertation, “Transforming Afterschool Programs into “Engines of Development”: A Policy Analysis of the Federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers,” she analyzed the act that provides over $1 billion annually for after-school and summer programming and proposed ways to make it more effective for students.

“Jane’s was an exceptional dissertation in that it has an immediate practical impact,” said Bloomfield, who served on Quinn’s dissertation committee, along with her adviser, Professor Deborah Shanley (GC/Lehman, Urban Education), and Presidential Professor Juan Battle (Nursing, Sociology, Urban Education, Liberal Studies, Social Welfare). “Not only did it achieve high-level analysis, but by including policymaker interviews in her research, she has ready access to them for the completed work.”

Since completing the dissertation last year, Quinn has been busy getting the word out about it. She spoke about her research at the Graduate Center’s Dissertation Showcase this month, and, earlier this year, she presented her findings to policymaking members of the U.S. Department of Education.

She advises experienced professionals and older adults who are considering a Ph.D. to do their homework before jumping in. “You’ve got to make sure you're getting into the program that is going to be right for what you want to learn,” she said. “I'm really glad I did all that.” Before applying, she reached out to faculty as well as students and graduates whom she knew.

She also asked people if she could read their dissertations. “I think most people going into a Ph.D. program are really scared about the dissertation,” she said. Reading the papers in advance, she said, “helped me to understand and to demythologize what was involved.”

Quinn acknowledged that it helped that she is an avid reader and had substantial writing experience before starting the Ph.D. While in the program, she also co-wrote a book, The Community Schools Revolution, which will be out on June 1. The book, which was supported by donations, is intended for policymakers and practitioners and will be available for free.

Quinn’s penchant for social justice stretches back to her own childhood. She was 12 years old in 1956 when the Supreme Court issued its Brown vs. Board of Education decision. That same year, she moved with her family from Ridgewood, New Jersey, to Norfolk, Virginia. “The racial animosity in Norfolk resulted in the closure of the entire public school system,” she said. “I watched my mother become politically active and, I think, radicalized.” Her mother started the first racially integrated Girl Scout troop in the area and began working on fair housing issues, Quinn said. “I gained a firsthand understanding of some of the underlying unfairness and outright discrimination that permeates American society,” she said.

With her Ph.D., Quinn has gained the credibility and sense of purpose she sought. “I'm not retired,” she said. “I'm rewiring. I'm doing something else with what I care about.”

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