From a lawyer to an education advocate

Tomea A. Sippio-Smith

Education Policy M.S.Ed., 2016

Before Penn GSE: Attorney

After Penn GSE: K-12 Policy Director, Public Citizens for Children + Youth

"Penn GSE’s Education Policy program armed me with the tools I needed to effectively advocate for change in our educational system."

In more than a decade as an attorney working in family law in the Miami area, I saw case after case where children’s educational needs were not being met. I felt called to improve a system that repeatedly failed students in under-resourced communities.

For me, this was personal. When I was an eighth-grader taking advanced math at an inner-city school, I was selected to go to a regional math competition. Instead of being an honor, it was an unsettling eye-opener. My peers from more affluent schools were succeeding at types of math I hadn’t heard of, much less mastered. I felt inadequate, and worried through college that I wouldn’t be prepared to succeed.

Penn GSE’s Education Policy program armed me with the tools I needed to effectively advocate for change in our educational system.

Professor Rand Quinn’s class changed how I thought about education policy. He showed us how the policies themselves are only one piece of the puzzle. Significant policy changes only move forward if people work to create the right political climate, and key actors decide to use political capital to enact the changes. And even then, those policies break down if there isn’t a will to implement them at the school and classroom level.

This and other courses reframed my experience in education. I learned the historical context for why certain policies existed, and the often unintended consequences of how those policies were implemented.

Returning to a university after more than a decade working, I found support in all of the resources Penn offered me. I built a network with fellow students and recent alums, both within Penn GSE and across campus. Faculty engaged me as a student and as a person who could bring insights into the questions we were exploring together.

In my current role as K-12 Policy Director for Public Citizens for Children + Youth, I use my Penn GSE training to analyze research and make it accessible for advocates, policymakers, and parents working on educational equity in the Philadelphia region. I want the next generation of students growing up in communities like mine to believe their education is their strongest asset, not a liability to be overcome. It’s the fair chance they deserve.