Alfonzo Thurman found his career path during summer breaks from UW-La Crosse.
He’d started out interested in elementary education, but found he liked working with adults better and really liked organizing and running projects.
“I ended up directing a summer program for two years. I found the administrative side appealed to me as well as the teaching.” He and his wife, Brazilian, later helped found a center at UW-Lacrosse that brought together African Americans, Latinos and American Indians.
“I got to teach and administer a new center. I was hooked.”
Thurman, who is retiring at the end of January 2016, has found an opportunity to do both in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Education. After serving as dean of the school for 10 years (from 2001 to 2011), he returned to his focus on teaching and researching school leadership for the past five years. He also directs the Research Center for Urban Education Leadership Development.
After completing his B.A. in English at UW-La Crosse, he went on to earn a master’s and doctorate at UW-Madison, starting his career in the then-new UW System at UW-Whitewater. He came to UWM after 22 years at Northern Illinois University.
UWM’s focus on urban education was one of the factors that originally attracted him to the School of Education, he said. Nancy Zimpher, former UWM Chancellor, was also a factor. She was collaborating with city and business leaders to found the Milwaukee Partnership Academy (MPA) to work on improving Milwaukee’s Public Schools. At the same time, she was looking for new dean for the university’s School of Education. She had worked with Thurman years before on a research project, and reached out to him.
“I think I told her ‘no’ three times, but she just would not take no for an answer,” said Thurman. “I wanted to be in a more urban area at that time, and both my wife and I had family in Racine. My parents had passed, but her parents were getting older and she wanted to be closer to them. Those things came together and it was a good fit.”
“UWM was really front and center in working with urban schools,” Thurman said. “I really am proud of the work that we’ve tried to do over the past 10 or 15 years.”
He has been deeply involved in urban education and partnerships throughout his career. He is a past President of the Holmes Partnership, a national network of schools, teachers’ associations and other community organizations working to improve teaching and learning. He has also been a member of the board of directors for the Council of Academic Deans from Research Education Institutions (CADREI) and served on the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education (AACTE) Board of Directors. In Milwaukee, Thurman, while dean convened the eight deans of education in the Milwaukee area known as the Metropolitan Milwaukee Area Deans of Education (MMADE), which was an outgrowth of his work with the Milwaukee Partnership Academy (MPA).
Thurman is also a member of the Next Door Foundation Milwaukee’s Educare Center Governing Board.
Since he stepped down as dean, Thurman says he has enjoyed his research on urban leadership and teaching master’s and doctoral students through Administrative Leadership and the Urban Education doctoral program.
UWM’s Urban Doctoral program, he points out, is unique in the state and in the country. “The focus is heavily on the urban setting. It’s unique and it’s attractive to students if they’re truly interested in working in the urban setting.”
Good leadership is vital to successful urban schools, he adds, and that’s the area he and his colleagues have been focusing on in recent years. “We train the leadership –principals, assistant principals and others — well here at UWM, but then the system takes its toll with rules and regulations and politics and financing.
“We can’t have successful schools without having a good funding source and he state has not been a good funding source recently,” he continues.
After he retires, Thurman will be taking time to visit with family. His son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren – live in Atlanta and are already encouraging him to relocate there. He’s not sure they are ready for a move yet – “it may take a few more hard Wisconsin winters, before we do that.”
However, he and Brazilian are planning some travel.
“We’d like to see all the national parks, maybe start up in the Northwest and drive around the country.”
But he also plans to continue his research and maybe some teaching in the field of urban education leadership.
The needs are so urgent, he adds. “Milwaukee is the state’s largest system, and it has the poorest families and neighborhoods. If we don’t provide a good education for those children, that cycle is going to continue.”