Kathy Bihr (EdD ’05) Brings the Future to Life for Kids

 

Kathy Bihr (EdD ’05) makes career choices tangible and tactile for kids. As vice president and executive director of the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, she guides flocks of students as they put their academic interests into action with hands-on career exploration and college preparation classes.

On a June morning, teenagers clustered around tables balancing sticks into architectural replicas. At one table, three 17-year-old girls circled what is starting to resemble the Eiffel Tower. “We’ve been coming here every summer since the sixth grade, and we learn something different every year,” said Itzel, who attends high school in Huntington Beach along with her two friends. She said she especially liked this engineering class. “We’re actually learning how to create structures. You’re not just seeing it in a textbook, you’re actually doing it.”

That’s the idea behind the curriculum Bihr developed in 2005 when she arrived at the brand-new center, which now sees up to 6,000 elementary school kids and 5,000 high school students each year. Students get to “become” marine biologists, video game designers, and forensic scientists with programs that bring academic concepts to life. And teachers come to the center to learn how to use technology more effectively to make science class a hands-on experience for kids, instead of just another reading lesson.

“I don’t think kids are bored in school; we just need to do better at connecting what they learn in a classroom to the real world,” Bihr said. “Kids learn when they get their hands in something. This program is designed to connect subjects taught in school to how they are applied in the real world. This helps students recognize their full potential and visualize what their future could be like.”

The spacious, modern facility sits above the tranquil green of a golf course. Inside, vibrant college pennants cover a prominent wall next to stacks of glossy university brochures – constant reminders of the high expectations for students’ futures.

Bihr said her childhood was unlike that of many of the kids she sees at the center. The Whittier native had the opportunity to explore interests like sports, dance and travel, and college attendance was assumed. She also learned from her parents the importance of equal opportunity for all.

From her earliest years of employment, Bihr found a special love for two things – working with kids and being outdoors. The golf enthusiast coached sports, worked for the city parks and recreation department, and designed large-scale interactive games for kids at summer camp.

Later, she pursued those dual interests as a physical education teacher in LAUSD. It was the kids there that first stirred a passion for educational equity that has driven her since. “The kids there didn’t have two pennies to rub together,” Bihr recalls. “My purpose in life is to level the playing field, and create opportunity for all kids to be successful, regardless of background or circumstance.”

After moving up the ranks in K-12 administration, and most recently serving as principal and director of Vista View Middle School, Bihr decided to take a step towards making an even bigger impact in education. She pursued her doctorate of education at USC Rossier.

“I liked the practicality of what I was learning and that we had both professors and practitioners,” Bihr said of the program. “Dr. (David) Marsh was my chair, and he gave me a lot to think about with organizational change and what holds people back from change, and I’ve used that multiple times in my career. Dr. (Stuart) Gothold and Dr. (George) Giokaris were practitioners with experience in K-12 in addition to university experience, so they brought real tangible knowledge to the program.”

Bihr’s Fullerton-based cohort was one of the first to conduct thematic dissertations – a key component of the school’s innovative EdD program. She and her colleagues examined school district reform, with each doctoral student exploring a different angle on the topic. “Everyone in my cohort has been wildly successful, and many of us remain good friends to this day. I think the natural network that was formed through our program was an added benefit to the USC experience. We received a quality education, grounded in practice and reinforced with research.” For Bihr, leading the Tiger Woods Learning Center was a natural progression for her career, and not just because she loves golf. She believes the center fills an expanding void in education created by high stakes testing.

“I believe in accountability, but to the degree that it paralyzes the workforce is a problem. I see a lot of being in lock step and following the guidelines, and little creativity from teachers,” she said. “We have to have higher goals than making kids proficient – that’s just mediocre. Our measuring point should be how kids are doing in their careers, how successful we are doing as a nation.”

Her commitment to the kids that she serves is undeniable, and extends beyond the learning center. Bihr also serves on the board for El Viento Foundation, which works to improve the lives of youth in the Oak View community of Huntington Beach, and she chairs the organization’s academic committee. She’s also on the board of the nonprofit Project Tomorrow, which supports the innovative uses of science, math and technology resources in K-12 schools. Bihr is also the newest member of the USC Rossier Board of Councilors.

“I want to advance the ideas of education for all, and I want to put myself in a position to have the influence to see that through. Choosing USC to further my education was the best move of my professional career. I learned that there are members of the Trojan family all around me that are focused on the same thing. Together, we can ensure education equity around the world.”

— By Andrea Bennett