As vice president and executive director of the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, Calif., Kathy Bihr EdD ’05 guides young students who embrace their academic interests in college preparation classes.
On one recent morning, teenagers clustered around tables, using small wooden sticks to construct architectural replicas. At one table, three 17-year-old girls worked on what was 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 Rodriguez, who attends high school in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Rodriguez said she especially liked this engineering class. “We’re actually learning how to create structures,” she said. “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 learning center, which currently accepts up to 6,000 elementary school children and 5,000 high school students each year.
Taking part in programs that bring academic concepts to life, students look into the work of marine biologists, video game designers or forensic scientists. And teachers visit the center to use technology more effectively, making their science class a truly educational experience for children instead of a mere reading lesson.
“I don’t think kids are bored in school,” Birhr said. “We just need to connect what they learn in a classroom to the real world. This helps students recognize their full potential and visualize what their future could be like.”
Inside the spacious facility, which is situated above a sprawling golf course, brightly colored college pennants cover a wall nearby stacks of glossy university brochures — constant reminders of the high expectations for the futures of the students.
Recalling her own childhood, Bihr said it was unlike that of many of the youngsters she sees at the center. The Whittier, Calif., native, who explored dance and athletics when she was in school, learned about the importance of equal opportunity for everyone from her parents.
From her earliest years of employment, Bihr had an appreciation for two things — working with children and spending time outdoors. The golf enthusiast coached sports, worked for the city parks and recreation department, and designed large-scale interactive games for children at summer camp.
Later, she pursued her interests as a physical education teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
“The kids there didn’t have two pennies to rub together,” Bihr recalled. “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 in Fountain Valley, Calif., Bihr took a step toward making an even bigger impact in education. She pursued her doctorate of education at the USC Rossier School of Education.
“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 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 [having] university experience, so they brought tangible knowledge to the program.”
Based in Fullerton, Calif., Bihr’s cohort was one of the first to conduct thematic dissertations — a key component of the school’s EdD program. She and her colleagues examined school district reform, with each doctoral student covering a different aspect of the topic.
“Everyone in my cohort has been wildly successful, and many of us remain good friends to this day,” she said. “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 a void in education created by high-stakes testing.
“I believe in accountability, but to the degree that it paralyzes the workforce is a problem,” she explained. “I see a lot of being in lockstep and following the guidelines, and little creativity from teachers.
“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.”