By Ruth Keyso, Director of Alumni Relations & Giving
When you see Dean of Students Bobby Coburn ’09 in the halls of Carmen School on Milwaukee’s Northwest Side, it’s clear he’s in his element.
As he passes a bulletin board decorated with photos of seniors who have been accepted into college, he announces, like a proud parent, that they represent the first class of students to graduate from this urban charter school, which opened in 2013.
“I taught them as freshmen; they’re grown up, adults now.”
Bobby joined Carmen Schools of Science & Technology in 2013, fresh out of DePauw University and new to the Teach for America program. A classroom English teacher and football coach by day, he spent nights earning his teaching credentials and a master’s degree at Marquette University. Now in his fourth year at Carmen, he is part of the school’s leadership team, as one of two deans of students.
The new role has him reflecting on his own high school experience.
“I was head prefect at LFA and had a lot of contact with Mr. Tennyson [LFA's Dean of Students],” he says. Now that he’s a dean himself, Bobby has a newfound appreciation for the resilience and composure Tennyson demonstrated when dealing with student discipline issues. “It’s never as easy as it might seem,” says Bobby, about the position.
Bobby finds himself channeling Tennyson and others in the LFA community, including his basketball coach Matt Vaughn, when interacting with students. He remembers the patience and grace they extended to him as a teenager, “even when I didn’t deserve it,” he says.
Building strong relationships with students and creating a positive growth environment is central to Bobby’s style. He’s says it’s critical for him to find common ground with students. His young age—25—is an advantage in that he’s relatable. While he recognizes that his background and life experiences are different from the students he interacts with at this urban school, their values and goals are the same: success in college and beyond.
“We want to see them [excel] in college, in their careers, and in their community,” he says.
To this end, Bobby and his colleagues have tailored the model at Carmen to focus on merits rather than demerits. Structures are in place to assist students in the learning process: an extended school day, mandatory office hours, daily enrichment periods for math and reading. Incentives and positive reinforcements keep students inspired and motivated.
But, in the end, Bobby believes one of the most important things he and his colleagues can do is simply be there for students. Every morning he arrives at school early to greet students as they enter the building at 7:15 a.m. He talks sports and pop culture with them at lunch. He even accompanied a student on a college visit, driving him the two-hour distance on a Thursday afternoon. Seniors such as Uniqua Woodson say kids look up to “Mr. Coburn.”
“He’s so welcoming and always has the best intentions,” she says. “As a college football player and a coach, he can connect with students on different levels.”
Bobby says Carmen is more than just a job: His colleagues are some of his closest friends, and the relationships he has forged with students are some of his most meaningful. Though he’s unsure if education will remain his life’s career, for now it’s his full-time commitment and top priority.
“I think of what our team started here,” he says, reflecting on the past four years. “I believe in what we’re doing.”
Bobby Coburn is a 2009 graduate of LFA and a 2013 graduate of DePauw University, where he earned his degree in English Literature. He also holds a master’s degree in Educational Policy and Leadership from Marquette University. He lives in Milwaukee.
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