Alumni Stories: Betsy Kim

Studying systemic issues to maintain school as sanctuary 

January 2023


Elisabeth (Betsy) Kim experienced a lot of change and challenges as a young girl. She and her mom moved around a lot, and her mother  struggled with mental illness. When Kim was in first grade, her aunt and uncle adopted her.

“School was the one constant for me, something I was good at and where I felt safe,” said Kim, CPRL 2015, and now Assistant Professor of Education and Leadership at California State University, Monterey Bay. 

When she became a first grade teacher in the early 2000s, she saw a lot of herself in her students. “Many of them had challenges at home, too,” she said of her students in the dual language program at P.S. 161 in Harlem. “When they came back from school breaks, they were so happy to be with their friends in a structured environment.”

Yet Kim began to see that education policies were threatening the function of school as a sanctuary. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) had recently passed, mandating an increased focus on standards and accountability. Intended to push schools to better serve all students, it was a good idea in theory, Kim said, but in practice she and her colleagues found that NCLB was being used as “a blunt instrument” for punishing schools in the short term rather than helping them to improve over time. “We were constantly afraid that the district was going to penalize us or even close the school,” she said. “It just seemed like the focus was on the wrong things.”    

Eager to be part of changing the system, Kim returned to school, earning a Master’s degrees in Sociology & Education and Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences, and a Ph.D. in Education Policy from Columbia University’s Teachers College.  

While at Columbia, she studied and worked with the Center for Public Research and Leadership (CPRL). It was there, she said, that she honed her skills in identifying and addressing systemic education issues. CPRL’s Evolutionary Learning approach gave her a framework for pursuing deep and sustainable change by building leaders’ capacity to continually learn and adapt new ways of getting results. 

She has since applied that learning at Columbia and beyond. For her doctoral dissertation, which she completed while at CPRL, Kim explored how Latinx families were navigating school choice in New York City. Through her qualitative research, she found a disconnect between school districts and the Latinx families they served. She learned that many immigrant families lacked the information or means to tour schools and do all the other things necessary to engage with the school choice process. She found that most parents chose schools in their neighborhoods or relied on word of mouth from friends and family rather than finding the school that best fit their children’s needs. 

When a district closed a school for low test scores and opened a new school “with great fanfare” under a new name, local Latinx families lamented for the previous school, where they felt the administration had had a strong understanding of their needs because of their deep roots and long history in the community. Kim’s research also found limited access for Latinx students to learning opportunities that might have enhanced their academic success, such as dual language programs. When these programs were offered, she said, “Families either weren’t aware of them or they assumed that the programs were intended for children from higher-income, mostly white families.”  

After Columbia, as a Robert Curvin Postdoctoral Associate at the Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies at Rutgers University-Newark, Kim applied systems thinking and evolutionary learning to her work with the Newark FAFSA Challenge, an initiative to help Newark high school seniors complete the complex federal and state financial aid applications. Research has shown that students who complete these forms are more likely to attend and complete college, but FAFSA completion rates are lower among students of color and those from immigrant families. 

At the Cornwall Center, Kim also helped launch Freshman Success, a professional development program designed to support students’ success in 9th grade. She worked with a data team in the district to create a tool to track students’ progress, and created a tool to track note-taking by teams of teachers, principals, guidance counselors and central office staff.   

“It’s easy for these teams to get derailed and focus on things outside their locus of control,” she said.  “By monitoring their notes, we can see if they’re focused on the task at hand. It’s better than waiting until the end to assess how things are going.”

As an Assistant Professor of Education and Leadership at California State University, Monterey Bay, Kim continues to explore the relationships between school systems and the students and families they serve. She has published blogs and a recent report which found that the FAFSA completion rate among students of color in Newark has dropped significantly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her report reviews strategies that other states and cities have used to boost completion rates, including requiring that high students complete the FAFSA application to graduate, creating exemptions for undocumented students and other special populations, and increasing support from school counselors. Kim also recently published a paper on kindergarten school choice in New York City in the Journal of School Choice.

Across all of her research, she said, her findings have remained consistent: “There’s a tendency to try a new education initiative for a year or so and then move on to something else,” she said. “But if you go for the quick fix and then give up when it doesn’t happen, you miss the opportunity to learn from your mistakes and misconceptions. Real, meaningful change is iterative – it takes time.” 

By Joe Levine

In Their Own Words

Our alumni network now includes more than 500 leaders, advocates, and champions dedicated to improving school systems and other public sectors. Some alumni work directly with teachers, families, and students, ensuring access to high-quality education. Others work indirectly—supporting improvement from inside private sector organizations. In Their Own Words captures the many and varied ways our alumni lead and improve organizations in education and other public sectors.

About the Author

Joe Levine writes about education, law, science and medicine, and health care. His work has appeared in Time, LIFE, Money, Newsday, and many university magazines.