Month: January 2019

Humans of HESA: Denée Jackson

For Denée Jackson (HESA ‘19), pursuing a master’s degree in higher education and student affairs was a natural choice. As an undergraduate student at UConn, she was deeply involved in campus organizations such as the African American Cultural Center and her sorority. This involvement led her to first an internship and then, upon graduation, a staff position in the Office of Fraternity & Sorority Life. The opportunity to work with college-age students, says Jackson, is one she cherishes.

“Universities are where magic happens,” says Jackson. “Students are figuring out who they are, how they want to change their world, what they want to do with their little slice of the universe; it’s really cool to be a part of that.”

In the university setting and outside of it, Jackson is dedicated to pursuing equity and uplifting the most marginalized populations. One challenging aspect while she’s in school full-time is balancing her studies with her desire to do community organizing and other activist work. “I’ve had to put some of that on hold for now, at least outside of UConn,” says Jackson. “But I’m always trying to educate myself and stay up to date on social issues.”

One of Jackson’s most rewarding experiences as a HESA student was her practicum last fall with ScHOLA2RS House, which is a learning community for Black men on campus. The HESA practicum program gives HESA students the opportunity to gain experience with effective facilitation and the design of intentional learning environments. For Denée’s fall 2018 practicum she mentored a group of students in ScHOLA2RS House, connecting with them regularly to make sure they had the resources they needed. A highlight, says Jackson, was going with her students to the annual conference of the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C. She enjoyed the practicum so much that she’s stayed connected: for spring break this semester she will be joining ScHOLA2RS House for a study abroad week in Brazil.

Through Jackson’s successes as a student, life has not always been easy. Her mother, who she describes as her “biggest cheerleader and advocate,” passed away in November of 2018. “It’s going to be a challenge going into this next semester without her,” says Jackson. “But I have my brother and my dad, I have my friends.” The HESA community has been there for her, too.  “Faculty, staff, my supervisors, my cohort,” she says. “They helped ground me and remember that there are bigger things beyond 

grades, beyond HESA. They’ve been really supportive.”

Jackson’s current goal for her upcoming final semester (and beyond) is balance. “I’m working on looking at my life and my well-being holistically,” she says. “I’m trying to feed my soul on all levels. Cooking, going to the gym, doing yoga, meditating, travel: it can all seem like a stressor when I’m busy, but then when I do it, I find it helps so much. It becomes a pillar.”

As a HESA student, Jackson likes being able to design her experience to suit her goals. Many students move directly into their careers after completing a HESA master’s program, but Jackson is pursuing a different path: she plans to begin a doctoral program after graduation.  

“There’s a path that’s sometimes considered to be ‘typical’ student affairs, but if your interests don’t align with that, it’s okay,” she says. “There are lots of ways to pursue what you’re interested in, and people will support you along the way.”

Student-Professional Feature: Diana Kelley

In Higher Education, it is not uncommon for students to balance their studies with a full or part-time job. Many students enrolled in the programs of the University of Connecticut’s Department of Educational Leadership (EDLR) are not only students, but working professionals in the field. The “Student-Professionals” series highlights these hard-working student-professionals and how they balance their responsibilities. This feature focuses on a student-professional in the Ed.D. program.

For Diana Kelley, a student in the Department of Educational Leadership’s Ed.D. program, balance is key: in addition to her studies, she works as the Director of Special Education for Glastonbury Public Schools.

Kelley’s path in the field of special education began when she was a busy stay-at-home mother. As her children started to get a little older, she was ready to rejoin the workforce and decided to go back to school to become a paralegal. At the same time, she got a job as a special education paraprofessional. She found that she greatly enjoyed working with children in a professional setting and was particularly interested in special education. Education, she realized, might be the right career for her. As a result she stopped her paralegal studies and transferred to Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) to complete her teaching degree.

Photo of Diana Kelly outside
Diana Kelley

Managing the multiple and often competing demands of work, school, and family was a challenge as she completed her degree. “I would take my schoolwork to my kids’ sports games,” remembers Kelley. Upon successfully completing her bachelor’s degree, she started working as a special education teacher at Gideon Welles School in Glastonbury, CT. In that position, she also took on numerous building-level leadership roles, including serving as a team leader and serving on the Teacher Administration Liaison Committee. Her interest in leadership led her back to CCSU to complete a master’s degree and then to Sacred Heart University to earn an administrative certificate. When the opportunity arose, Kelley took a position as Special Education Supervisor at Glastonbury High School. When the Director of Special Education position for Glastonbury Public Schools opened up several years later, Kelley applied, and she has been in that role ever since.

For Kelley, the decision to pursue an Ed.D. was multifaceted. “I like being in school; learning about the most current practices and research is very helpful in my career,” she says, adding that earning a doctorate has always been a personal goal as well.

She chose UConn’s Ed.D. program for its proximity, affordability, and cohort model, which she says is very important to her. “The cohort is very supportive; it helps everyone stay connected and hold each other accountable,” she says. “And from a networking standpoint, it’s wonderful to get to know people and understand where they’re coming from.”

At this point in the program, Kelley’s research largely focuses on teachers’ beliefs and attitudes about students with disabilities, and she intends for her research to have real-world impact. “I want to find out things that will help guide me and my staff in terms of best practices to support students and teachers,” she says. “The growth mindset is important to me: believing that all students can learn.”

Being a student-professional can certainly be a challenge, says Kelley. Her job is demanding and she is sometimes exhausted by the time she gets home at the end of the day, which makes hitting the books for her program difficult.

While it can be difficult at times, Kelley says being a student-professional is also uniquely rewarding. “I like being able to relate what’s said in class back to my job,” she says. “It helps me keep my practice current and relevant, and it helps me provide useful professional development for my staff.” Plus, Kelley adds, the busyness of her schedule actually helps her appreciate the calmer moments. “Sometimes it makes me appreciate being in the moment more.”

“Balance and prioritization is key,” says Kelley. “My advice is to stick to a schedule and have some structure. I try to get my schoolwork done on weekends and one night a week. And it’s so important to carve out time for yourself: some time to go to the gym, whatever it might be. Sometimes I just take one night and say ‘I’m not going to not think about school or work tonight.’”


Staying in Storrs: Loretta Rubin’s Return to UCAPP

The University of Connecticut’s Department of Educational Leadership (EDLR) is fortunate to have well-connected alumni who continue to work with the university, post-graduation or some who have returned after years of work in diverse professional settings. The “Staying in Storrs” series will highlight our talented EDLR program alumni and the work they are currently doing with UConn.  This feature focuses on the UCAPP program.

Loretta Rubin
Loretta Rubin

UCAPP alumna, Loretta Rubin was a member of the first UCAPP cohort based out of Stamford, graduating from the program in 1996. Currently, she serves as a leadership coach to interns in the same program that she graduated from, 22 years prior; an opportunity that she feels fortunate to have which allows her to draw upon her previous experience, when she was enrolled in the program.

Having first-hand experience as a student, she has a deep understanding of the challenges students face with regards to attending classes at night and on the weekends, while simultaneously balancing their day-jobs as successful educators. For this reason, she’s excited to serve as a role model to these aspiring leaders and teach them how to balance the program’s requirements in order to achieve their career goals.

Rubin reflected on the many role models who helped her throughout the program and her professional journey, one in particular was her adviser, Ellen Sloane. Sloane helped her navigate the program and balance the demands of higher education with the demands of the classroom. Today, Rubin is dedicated to providing that same support to UCAPP students in her role as a leadership coach. She does not tell students what to do or what to think – she asks questions that get them to think critically and adopt different perspectives. This helps them broaden their learning to get the most out of their internship experience.

One element that has helped Rubin transition into a role on the professional side of the UCAPP program is the continued commitment to the same values that the program upheld when she was a student. The importance of instructional leadership, core knowledge competencies, commitment to equity and cultural awareness, and the continued dedication to students remain the program’s top priorities. Rubin also applauds the program for its ability to continuously grow to meet the needs of an ever changing educational landscape while navigating the complexities of a principalship.

When she joined the program, Rubin knew it was highly respected. However, she explains that what she gained – and continues to gain from the program – far exceeded her expectations. She describes that she sought admission to the program for the credentials, but the diverse perspectives and comprehensive curriculum re-instilled her purpose for pursuing a career in education, with a goal “to make the world a better place.”

After 11 years of mentoring principals across the state, Rubin is excited to shift her focus to the UCAPP students as they have a unique opportunity to assess current issues in their internships, apply learnings from their classes, and implement creative solutions. She believes that the ability to inspire growth and development not only with the UCAPP students themselves, but throughout the educational landscape of Connecticut is amazing. The Department of Educational Leadership is excited for the energy and perspective that Rubin brings with her as she returns back to UCAPP after years in the field.

RESEARCH Series: Evaluation in K-12

Image of laptop promoting Evaluation in K-12: "The Topic of evaluation in the K-12 setting leads to a broader philosophical question: how do people get better at whatever it is that they choose to do?  And, moreover, what is 'better'? - Quote by Dr. Morgaen Donaldson

Dr. Morgaen Donaldson headshot
Dr. Morgaen Donaldson


For Dr. Morgaen Donaldson, the topic of evaluation in the K-12 setting leads to a broader philosophical question: how do people get better at whatever it is that they choose to do? And, moreover, what is “better?” These are questions Donaldson has been interested in for as long as she can remember. “Since I was a kid, a student and an athlete, I’ve been curious about what constitutes really outstanding performance or really good work.”

Donaldson’s current research focuses on precisely this question. She is the principal investigator of an expansive project that spans three states (Connecticut, Tennessee, and Michigan) and 23 school districts to take an unprecedented look at school principal evaluation. The project, which is funded by a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, is co-led by Dr. Shaun Dougherty (Vanderbilt University), Dr. Madeline Mavrogordato (Michigan State University), and Dr. Peter Youngs (University of Virginia).

“We’re interviewing superintendents and principals, we’re analyzing the different policies districts have put in place to enhance principals’ skills, we’re surveying teachers to get their perspectives on principals’ leadership, and then we’re looking at student performance measures to see whether they’re correlated with the teachers’ perspectives and the policies.”

The study is groundbreaking in both aims and scope. There hasn’t been a great deal of research on principal evaluation, says Donaldson, and there have been very few studies, if any, of this size. The goals of the study are diverse. “One goal is definitely to understand how to better evaluate principals, but also to try to understand what superintendents consider to be effective leadership among and for principals, and whether that differs depending on district and school characteristics,” says Donaldson.

“I’m particularly interested in superintendents’ tacit beliefs about what makes a good principal.  Superintendents are acting on their beliefs about principal leadership all the time. If we have a good understanding of what those beliefs are, we can craft professional development and learning opportunities for principals to be able to build the skills they need.” – Dr. Morgaen Donaldson

Another aim of this study is to address the increasing push for instructional leadership among principals. There has been some research that suggests that helping principals improve their management skills pays off in terms of student learning, but it’s still a largely untested idea, says Donaldson. “When we try to help principals improve, we have to make some decisions about what areas to focus on. Should we be pushing principals to be better instructional leaders? Should we be pushing them to make stronger connections with families? We’re adding evidence to that debate.”

Donaldson’s passion for these issues stems from her own experience as a founding teacher of a public high school in Boston. “That was very formative for me,” she says. “It raised many of the questions that I’m still working on today. It underlies a lot of the work that I do.”

In the future, Donaldson hopes to continue investigating principal quality, as well as digging more deeply into the role of superintendents, which, she says, has not been studied in much detail.  She’s also curious about the role of individuals with less positional authority, in particular school secretaries and custodians. Donaldson’s sense, based on her own experience, is that they play a pivotal role in setting the culture for schools.

For Donaldson, the real-world impact is the most exciting part of her research. “It’s very exciting to actually receive emails and phone calls from principals, superintendents and teachers across the country who want to use papers from the study,” she says. “It’s just great to hear that practitioners are reading our work and that it’s useful to them.”

Dr. Donaldson’s work is integral to the rich tapestry of research that goes on within UConn’s Department of Educational Leadership, and promotes the department’s mission to develop quality leaders in the field of education. To learn more about Donaldson’s current project, visit the IES blog.