Author: Madeleine Chill

RESEARCH Series: Community Partnerships

Community Partnerships: "The partnership was built slowly and intentionally with the kids, the families and eventually the teachers" - Quote by Drs. Jennie McGarry and Justin Evanovich

On the topic of community partnerships, Drs. Jennifer McGarry and Justin Evanovich strongly agree: relationships must be the priority. McGarry and Evanovich co-direct Husky Sport, a campus-community partnership between UConn’s Neag School of Education and a community in Hartford’s North End that uses sport and nutrition education to promote equity, empowerment, and growth, both for students in Hartford and at UConn.

The partnership as a whole, which has been going strong for nearly sixteen years now, has never been a “top-down” experience, says McGarry: “It has been community relationships from the beginning. It was never ‘this is what we do, can we do it at your school?’ It was getting to know kids, families, teachers and coaches in other spaces– in afterschool and weekend programs, in community sports– and starting from there. The partnership was built slowly and intentionally with the kids, the families, and eventually the teachers.”

Headshot of Dr. Jennifer McGarry
Dr. Jennifer McGarry

Since 2005, the project has been generously grant-funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s SNAP-Ed program, and currently Husky Sport is present in the North End of Hartford six days a week leading in-school, after-school, and weekend programming. While the in-school programming takes place at the Fred D. Wish Museum School, Husky Sport staff and students also lead programs at multiple after-school and weekend partner sites such as the Hartford Catholic Worker and Salvation Army North End Corps.

Partnerships such as this incorporate many different components, including research, but Evanovich emphasizes that research cannot be the core directive if equity is the goal. “Genuine community partnerships and research can easily be in conflict with one another,” he says. “We have to put relationships first, we can’t lead with research. If we did, we’d be putting the university, the college students, and the faculty at risk of being exploitative. We have to own that risk and actively fight against it, and that starts with valuing the voices of people in the community, with prioritizing their goals. We want quality experiences and opportunities to be there for the young people; if we’re not placing that first, we can lose the focus of what it is we’re trying to do.”

With this understanding in mind, the research that does take place within the Husky Sport program is carefully and intentionally facilitated. The research falls into three main areas. The first focuses on the Hartford students’ experience with the various Husky Sport programs, as well as the experience of their families, and uses a sport-based youth development framework. The second line of research focuses on the experience of UConn college student participants in a critical service learning framework. The final area focuses on the campus-community partnership itself, which is a topic of increasing interest in campuses and communities around the country. “The research, much like the partnership, is always evolving,” says McGarry. “With our college-student-focused research, for example, we used to use a service learning framework, but we’re now emphasizing more of a critical service learning approach. We hope this research impacts the way people understand and problematize service.”

Justin Evanovich headshot
Dr. Justin Evanovich

Another important aspect of the partnership is internal assessment, an area in which Evanovich feels they have made great strides over the years. “Firstly, a lot of our ‘assessment’ is informal, it’s in our everyday relationships. Lots of exchanges of ‘how did it go, how did you like this, what would you like to see?’ It’s a process of analysis that’s part of the everyday fabric of our partnership,” says Evanovich. “And when we do conduct more formal assessment, we’ve made huge improvements. We try never to have students sit in their seats and complete a survey using a pencil. Everything’s active: it aligns with our Husky Sport pillars of activity. Everyone’s up and moving, placing stickers, competing in relay races– it’s fun and engaging.” Evanovich credits many of these improvements to the learning that took place during an exchange program between UConn and the University of Western Cape in South Africa. “Folks from UConn were able to go to communities in the Western Cape and see those techniques being implemented,” says Evanovich. “And we’re still growing: now we’re working on faster turnaround for change based on feedback from kids, teachers, and families.”

The partnership has faced its fair share of challenges since its inception in 2003. “Navigating changes that are out of our control can be difficult,” says McGarry. “Husky Sport is affected by shifts in leadership in the school, the university, the city, and even the state and federal governments. At one point, the school we had been at for about nine years closed, and then those students were reassigned to three different schools, and we had to split our program up among multiple locations. Then the following year, those students were shifted back into one school. It forces us to be creative; we changed our strategies and approaches and found ways to make things work. It can be challenging, but when we figure it out it can be very rewarding.”

Like any good partnership, Husky Sport is always a work in progress.

“We are always learning,” says Evanovich. “With everything we do, we can’t just be a university coming in from the outside as experts. The community we’re partnered with is within a six-block radius, and it’s full of love and care and skill and hard work, but it’s also systemically and historically oppressed. We can’t run disconnected youth development programs; we can’t talk about food that people can’t access, we can’t talk about sports that people can’t play. We have to make sure we prioritize the talents, the strengths, and the realities that the people in this community bring to the table every day.”

Looking ahead, McGarry and Evanovich hope to improve and expand the partnership while staying in the same community. They are currently in the conceptual stages of a partnership with Neag’s Integrated Bachelor’s/Master’s Teacher Education Program which would bring more Neag students to Fred D. Wish School, and they are also preparing for more change: the Wish School’s student body is about to grow, and it will shift from being a K-8 to a PreK-5 school. Both McGarry and Evanovich point to their fellow Neag faculty and staff as leaders in community-based research, partnership, and change. “We have many talented folks as colleagues,” says Evanovich. “Their ongoing support and collaboration is vital to Husky Sport.” The Department of Educational Leadership is proud to support Husky Sport’s work toward equitable, community-led, positive change in Hartford, Storrs, and beyond.

Humans of HESA: Brenna Turer

Long before Brenna Turer (HESA ‘19) found her path in UConn’s Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA) master’s program, she knew she would work in education. As an undergraduate at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, she earned her English/Language Arts teaching certificate and was planning to become a middle or high school teacher. At the same time, she worked as a resident assistant (RA) on campus and found herself increasingly drawn to working with students outside of the traditional teaching role.

Upon completing her bachelor’s degree, she decided to follow that growing passion and took a position as a Hall Director at High Point University in North Carolina. That role solidified her desire to pursue student affairs as a career, and so she began to apply for graduate programs. “I wanted a program that would let me continue my practice and also gain the theoretical grounding that would help me support students in all areas of learning,” says Turer. The UConn HESA program, she decided, was just that program.

Brenna Turer (HESA ’19)

The most rewarding part of the HESA program, says Turer, has been the relationships she’s built. For her graduate assistantship, she works in UConn Residential Life as an Assistant Residence Hall Director.

“There are some RAs I’ve been supervising since my first semester here at UConn,” says Turer. “I’m so fortunate to get to work and learn with them. A lot of them are getting these awesome jobs or applying to graduate programs themselves now. I feel lucky to be a part of that growing process.”

She also emphasizes the importance of the relationships she’s formed within HESA. “I came in thinking that my faculty advisor, Dr. Castillo-Montoya, would really be the only person I could go to,” she says. “She’s been amazing, but there’s also support all around; other members of my cohort, other faculty members, and practicum supervisors. It’s been especially great to be on the student end of things again, sharing class time with other HESA students.”

Graduate school is not without its challenges, but Turer says she’s managed to learn from the difficult parts. “There was new leadership in my residential area this year, and change can be challenging when you’re working with a group of people,” says Turer. “I learned how to advocate for my students and their voices, and also to help them be open to the change themselves.” As a student and practitioner at the same time, she faces diverse demands on her time that make balance and prioritization key. “A student in a previous HESA cohort once told me, ‘whatever you do, find your people,’” says Turer. “Sometimes it can be hard to find time to spend with ‘my people’–my partner, my friends–but it’s so important. I love going hiking on the weekends, visiting different breweries, just going on adventures.”

Turer’s advice to incoming HESA students is keep things in perspective. “HESA is such a fantastic community and it’s easy to get so wrapped up in the day-to-day, but sometimes you need to remember that there’s life outside of HESA,” says Turer. “Get off campus sometimes; remember that this is one of many parts of your life.” She also highlights the importance of finding your own way in the world of student affairs.

“You don’t always have to follow the ‘typical’ student affairs path; there are so many different paths you can take!” says Turer. “Know who you are, trust yourself, try not to compare yourself to others, and it will all work out.”

Courses and Curriculum: EDLR 5105

UConn’s Department of Educational Leadership (EDLR) offers a rich and diverse curriculum that prepares both undergraduate and graduate students to be educational leaders in our ever-changing world. The “Courses and Curriculum” series highlights innovative courses within EDLR’s catalog that are changing the education game for the better.  

The Department of Educational Leadership’s (EDLR) master’s program in Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA) boasts a robust curriculum that prepares students to be well-rounded and reflective student affairs practitioners. EDLR 5105: Structured Group Dialogue in Student Affairs is both an innovative and integral part of the HESA curriculum, giving students a space to consider how dialogue, and intergroup dialogue specifically, can be a tool to explore  their own racial identity and socialization, as well as the identities and processes of socialization of others. Students in the course are continually asked to reflect on the personal, professional, and educational implications of their learning. These insights and processes help the students learn how to dialogue with others who have varying perspectives given their own identities and socialization– a much-needed process on college campuses today.

Dr. Milagros Castillo-Montoya headshot
Dr. Milagros Castillo-Montoya

Students in EDLR 5105 engage in dialogue with each other as an entire class as well as in smaller, intra-class groups. One of the major aspects of the course is the Intergroup Collaboration Project (ICP), which, as the closing project for the course, encourages action as a result of learning. Students work alongside their cohort members in assigned groups to create visual representations of their learning, specifically around race and intergroup dialogue in student affairs practice. Through the ICP projects, students dialogue across differences to arrive at an understanding of that year’s selected theme: in 2016, the theme was “allyship;” in 2017 it was “social responsibility;” and in 2018 it was “disrupting race talk.” These visual representations are then shared with the larger UConn community in the form of a HESA Gallery Walk, which engages the larger UConn community in dialogue about race and higher education.  

The course is co-taught by Dr. Milagros Castillo-Montoya (she/her/hers) and Danielle DeRosa (she/her/hers). It was Castillo-Montoya who lead the charge several years ago to update HESA’s existing groups-based course. As part of her research on teaching in higher education, she had begun to explore intergroup dialogue, and in the winter of 2015 she was part of a six-person UConn delegation that attended the University of Michigan’s intergroup dialogue training program. Upon her return, she worked with the department chair to incorporate her valuable training into the course, which was first offered in its renovated form in the fall of 2016. The course, which follows the University of Michigan model, is co-taught by design: its two instructors have different social identities which are aligned with focus of the course. In UConn HESA’s case, the central focus of the course is race.

The course is divided into four phases: Forming and Building Relationships, Exploring Differences and Commonalities of Experience, Exploring and Dialoguing About Contentious Issues, and Alliance Building and Social Responsibility. In each phase, says DeRosa, students are both learners and teachers: “My favorite part of teaching this course is learning with and from our students.  Students in the HESA program think deeply about the ways in which college campuses can be more inclusive. As a community, we are each able to contribute from our own unique perspectives and lived experiences.”

Castillo-Montoya reaffirms the importance of bringing one’s unique identities and experiences to the course. “My lived experience as a Latina, first-generation college graduate from a low-income background informs my teaching of this course. So does my research expertise in teaching and learning in higher education,” says Castillo-Montoya. “From these experiences, I understand that the content of the course isn’t something ‘out there’ to be learned; it is inside each of us as we unpack our own assumptions and understandings about ourselves, others, and society relative to race. Then we can consider how those things impact our practice”

Danielle DeRosa headshot
Danielle DeRosa

For DeRosa, her experience working with Husky Sport, a campus-community partnership between UConn and a community in the North End of Hartford, has been important to her ability to complexly and responsibly co-teach this course. “I have had to examine my own positionality as a white woman engaged in work in a neighborhood mostly comprised of people of color. I’ve had to do a lot of the work that we are asking our students to do in the course, and this is work that I continue to invest in; the process of learning about and unlearning our own socialization never ends. It can be helpful to share the journey of understanding my own racial identity as I connect with students.”

Kayla Moses (she/her/hers, HESA ‘20), a student in the course this past fall, says she has learned a great deal about the impact of socialization and the power of her identity. “Within the context of this course, I became more aware of how the world around us, along with our personal stories, can impact the way that we think and develop,” says Moses. “I became more aware of my position as a woman of color and how that has affected my learning. This course allowed me to not only expand my understanding of how my identity can help me relate to my current and future students of color, but also to realize that sharing the load with white peers and colleagues is the only way that this work can be done effectively.”

Fellow student Steven Feldman (he/him/his, HESA ‘20) says that the course opened his eyes to important differences between one-on-one and group dialogue. “In one-on-one conversations, it is more difficult to avoid or disengage from conversations about race, but in group conversations, it is easier to fall into racialized scripts of behavior,” says Feldman. “When this happens, white folks like me tend to stay silent either because we do not feel like we have the tools to talk about race yet or because we are experiencing the discomfort of talking about race. This course challenged me to reflect on my identities and consider the consequences of my words and behaviors in group contexts.”

Students at the 2018 HESA Gallery Walk

Castillo-Montoya and DeRosa, who just completed their third year teaching this course together, say it was their best co-teaching semester yet. Along with several of their students, they recently presented on the course at the 2019 ACPA (College Student Educators International) Annual Convention in Boston, Massachusetts. “Having this course makes UConn HESA one of only a handful of programs in the country that includes education on intergroup dialogue as part of their curriculum for future higher education and student affairs practitioners,” says Castillo-Montoya. “Practitioners in the field are increasingly competent in social justice and inclusion, and we want our graduates to be well prepared for their work with diverse students on diverse college campuses.”

“EDLR as a department has supported the development of this course from the outset,” says department head Dr. Jennifer McGarry. “We sent several faculty members to participate in the intergroup dialogue training at the University of Michigan, supported time and space to share about that experience, and encouraged the faculty who took part to integrate their learning with other opportunities to study, participate in, and lead dialogue about race. EDLR is committed to the course, the instructors, and the students: we see this teaching and learning as integral to who we are and what we value.” EDLR 5105 aligns with the Department of Educational Leadership’s mission to “inspire and cultivate innovative leaders for positive change” and Neag’s mission to develop leaders dedicated to improving education for all. The Department of Educational Leadership is proud to have talented teachers such as Dr. Milagros Castillo-Montoya and Danielle DeRosa doing the important work of opening and deepening dialogue on college campuses and beyond.


Humans of HESA: Alfredo Ramirez

Alfredo Ramirez (HESA ‘19) didn’t begin his undergraduate career thinking he would eventually pursue a master’s degree in higher education and student affairs. But thanks to his undergraduate experience at Montclair State University, Ramirez realized he had a passion for the field. As an undergraduate, he was actively involved in a host of student clubs and organizations such as residential life, student government, student programming, the student leadership office, and many more. These experiences led Ramirez to his current path in UConn’s Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA) master’s program.

Ramirez has a busy schedule in the HESA program, including coursework, a faculty-led mentorship, and a graduate assistantship. In his assistantship for the Department of Student Activities-Leadership and Organizational Development, Ramirez works one-on-one with UConn students as they complete their undergraduate experience and transition into the next phase of their lives. “I enjoy getting to support my students and watching their growth as leaders from day one of the semester to the last day of the year. There is a special component of watching some of my students graduate and prepare to take the next steps in their journey, and it means so much to me that they allow me to be a part of their journey,” says Ramirez.

Balancing school and the rest of his life can be a challenge, says Ramirez. At the end of the day, though, Ramirez is thankful for the opportunity to build relationships with other members of his HESA cohort and to improve himself as a professional in this field. Ramirez says that his HESA cohort, faculty, and his advisor Dr. Castillo-Montoya have been an enormous source of support, in school and beyond, as well as his family, fiancee, and friends.

While the majority of his time is dedicated to HESA, Ramirez makes sure to spend time with friends and family. Originally from New Jersey, Ramirez enjoys exploring New England’s unique attractions: watching the Red Sox at Fenway Park, eating an authentic lobster roll, and visiting local breweries. Ramirez’s favorite local spot is the popular diner the Cosmic Omelette in Manchester, CT. Ramirez also enjoys baking, reading, and theatre. Nevertheless, says Ramirez, “it’s important to come back to these little things– they ground you.”

To prospective HESA students, Ramirez notes that graduate school is not easy: “In order to really learn, you have to know that you want to come here. You have to really want it– it can’t just be for fun.” Ramirez likens graduate school to being behind the scenes at an amusement park: “when you step from a student leadership position out of undergrad into a masters student affairs program, you go from being a participant of all the great things a park has to offer to the person who is making the decisions which can be a tough transition for folks. The process though is worth it.”

When faced with challenges, Ramirez urges students to keep an open mind in all areas of their personal and professional lives. “Navigating the system can be difficult at times,” he says. “It’s important to maintain your own sense of self and allow your personal values to flourish in the many relationships you will build.” Ramirez reminds students to “not be afraid to change or ask yourself questions. This is what grad school is all about.”

RESEARCH Series: Research to Practice

Research to Practice: "There's a great deal of work being done to improve schools, to make sure that every child has access to positive educational opportunities every day.  I want to make that all more feasible" - Quote by Dr. Sarah Woulfin

For Dr. Sarah Woulfin, the bridge between research and practice is well-traveled. Now in her fifth year of collecting data as part of a research-practice partnership (RPP) with Hartford Public Schools, Woulfin says creating an open dialogue between research and practice is at the core of her work.

“I want to try to answer questions that people in the field really care about, questions grounded in real-world issues,” she says. “There’s a great deal of work being done to improve schools, to make sure that every child has access to positive educational opportunities every day. I want to make that all more feasible. Increasing and understanding the doability of reform, preventing overload: those are the big picture goals.” – Dr. Sarah Woulfin

Dr. Sarah Woulfin headshot
Dr. Sarah Woulfin

Broadly, Woulfin’s current research seeks to understand implementation of reforms in educational systems, especially within urban districts. As school districts work to improve, they often use many levers: updating curricula, meeting state accountability goals, implementing new attendance policies and teacher evaluation methods, and more. Woulfin’s research asks: how do both district and school leaders cope with this mixture of reform pressures? How do districts support teachers in the midst of these reforms? How can districts avoid what Woulfin calls the “too-muchness” of reform?

In her partnership with Hartford Public Schools, Woulfin is able to explore these questions in real time and from many different angles. RPPs are necessarily dynamic, says Woulfin, and her role is continually shifting. Early in the partnership, for example, she was interested in understanding how Hartford was implementing Common Core standards, a national educational initiative that was adopted by Connecticut in 2010. She learned that the district was mostly using instructional coaches for implementation, so she started researching instructional coaches’ roles and responsibilities in Hartford Public Schools – what kinds of support they received, where they were struggling, and so on. Soon, Woulfin started sitting in on professional development sessions for teachers, offering an extra set of hands and and quick-cycle feedback for the coaches. “It’s an interesting dance,” says Woulfin. “I don’t have authority in that sphere, so what I can do is increase access to useful materials, share my experience from other districts, and be a transporter for different techniques.”

Woulfin’s data collection focuses on the instructional coaches and teachers who are experiencing the reforms and the professional development activities: how they experience the reforms and professional development, what they find challenging, and how the daily realities in their school buildings make it easier or harder to take on the tasks that are expected of them. Within the framework of the RPP, Woulfin is able to put her findings in practice in a streamlined way. In addition to working with coaches and teachers, she also advises district leaders. “It gives me a good sense of what the more macro priorities are,” says Woulfin. “Each role in a district faces a different set of pressures.”

Woulfin’s commitment to bridging the gaps between research and practice comes from her own past; before she returned to school and earned her Ph.D. in Education from UC Berkeley, she was a teacher and a reading coach herself. When she was deciding to pursue her Ph.D., the research-practice partnership model was still a relatively new concept. Nevertheless, Woulfin found herself drawn to it, ending up in RPP-style projects before she even fully realized how to classify them. For her doctoral dissertation, for example, she conducted a one-year study of a school district; although not originally designed as such, it soon became an informal RPP. “I kept hearing, ‘you’re back?’” says Woulfin. “There’s something unique about becoming fully embedded in a district instead of dipping in for a shorter period of time. People realize ‘oh, she’s really here.’”

Recently, Woulfin had an experience that exemplifies the uniqueness of the RPP model. “I’ve been working with the math coaching team in Hartford, and recently they created team t-shirts for a Hartford schools event,” she says. “After the event, someone emailed me and said ‘we got you a t-shirt, we’ll give it to you next time!’ I had tears of researcher joy in my eyes. It was a huge moment for me: I truly felt like a part of their community.”

Looking ahead, Woulfin is excited to continue her work in Hartford and also to expand a second RPP with Bristol Public Schools. She is also in the conceptual stages of a project that would bring together urban district administrators from across Connecticut in a “community of practice.” On top of her research-practice work, Woulfin teaches in a multitude of Department of Educational Leadership programs: the Administrator Preparation Program (UCAPP), the Ed.D. program, the Ph.D. in LLEP program, and the Teacher Certification Program for College Graduates (TCPCG). She credits her students, many of whom are school and district leaders themselves, with helping her broker and continue these partnerships. The Department of Educational Leadership is proud of Dr. Woulfin’s outstanding efforts to integrate research and practice in education.

Courses and Curriculum: EDLR 5015

UConn’s Department of Educational Leadership (EDLR) offers a rich and diverse curriculum that prepares both undergraduate and graduate students to be educational leaders in our ever-changing world. The “Courses and Curriculum” series highlights innovative courses within EDLR’s catalog that are changing the education game for the better.  

Dr. Richard Schwab headshot
Dr. Richard Schwab

In EDLR 5015: Teacher Leadership and Organizations, finding your voice is the name of the game. The course, which is designed to prepare future teachers to become effective leaders within their schools, has been taught by a host of talented professors over the year, each of whom brings their unique skills to the curriculum. In recent years, Dr. Richard Schwab–Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership (EDLR), former Dean of the Neag School of Education, and UConn alumnus–has brought his extensive background in teacher education to the course and it has taken off.

The course is made up of many innovative components, including guest speakers from a range of professional areas who come to share their expertise. Recent speakers have included Dr. Alan Addley, Superintendent of Granby Public Schools and Connecticut’s Superintendent of the Year in 2019, and Alicia Bowman, who was named National Distinguished Principal of the Year by the National Association of Elementary School Principals in 2015– both are Neag alumni. “One of my favorite parts of this course was getting to learn from so many leaders from across Connecticut,” says Emily Cipriano, an EDLR alumna who credits a class visit by Nate Quesnel, Superintendent of East Hartford Public Schools, with finding her “dream job” teaching in the East Hartford school system herself.

The course also emphasizes leadership in the area of Family School Community Engagement (FCSE). “We talk about valuing all families: rich or poor, from all sorts of home life situations. All families want and are entitled to a meaningful education for their children,” says Schwab.

One course component in particular has garnered a lot of attention recently– including at the national level. As part of Schwab’s contract-based grading system, students are given the option of completing one of several projects in order to earn an A in the class. One of the possible projects is to complete an op-ed on an educational topic of the student’s choosing.

“The goal is for students to understand their voice,” says Schwab. “If you’re going to be a teacher leader, you need to have the courage to say: this is what I believe in.”

While publication is not a requirement of the project, this year alone Schwab has seen four of his students publish their op-eds: Emily Cipriano, Taylor Hudak, Julia Pilarski, and Olivia Singer have each used their voices to publish op-eds on topics ranging from teacher certification to how to teach in times of violence and political upheaval. Cipriano’s piece even reached national ears: not long after it was published, she appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered along with Dr. Schwab to talk about the impact of school shootings on the teaching profession.

Beyond the excitement of publication, writing op-eds is an instructive process. “Writing about a topic that is both a passion of mine and a critical issue in education helped me develop a sense of teacher leadership,” says Julia Pilarski. For Taylor Hudak, who describes herself as “a very reluctant writer,” the op-ed project was doubly empowering: “I definitely see myself writing more op-eds in the future, which is something I would never have thought before taking this course.”

“I felt like my voice was being heard, like it could actually make a difference,” says Olivia Singer.

So how does one write an op-ed? “I say to my students: start with your heart,” says Schwab, who has published numerous op-eds himself. “Only write what you’re passionate about. And no one gets it right on the first try! Editing, learning to express yourself concisely– that’s all part of the learning process.” Most students start with around 3000 words and have to hone that down to around 650, explains Schwab. For this process he brings in Stefanie Dion Jones, Director of Communications for Neag, as an expert coach for the students. “She’s wonderful at showing students how to put themselves out there, how to work with feedback,” says Schwab.

“Some students come in thinking they don’t have anything to offer,” says Schwab. “I couldn’t disagree more: I think these students have a great deal to offer.” And the impact of the op-eds goes beyond individual development and can effect broader social change: “Legislators read these!” he says.

Dr. Schwab’s comprehensive and innovative approach to teacher education is integral to Neag’s mission to prepare the next generation of educators to be leaders in our ever-changing world.

RESEARCH Series: Administrator Preparation

Administrator Preparation: "This research helps practitioners in the field understand the types of strategies and practices that will garner the best outcomes for students in schools" - Quote by Dr. Jennie Weiner and Jen Michno

Jen Michno headshot
Jen Michno

Clinical Instructor Jen Michno and colleague Dr. Jennie Weiner agree that research on administrator preparation is critically important for the field of education. Both Michno and Weiner are recent recipients of grants that support this vital research area.

Michno’s focus is to better prepare administrators to excel in Family School Community Engagement (FSCE). “This research helps practitioners in the field understand the types of strategies and practices that will garner the best outcomes for students in schools,” she says.  Weiner’s research focuses on students’ experiences within the preparatory programs themselves: “Are we, instructors in preparation programs, replicating patterns that are problematic and that reify discriminatory and ineffectual practices?” she asks. “More progressive, feasible, appropriate ways of thinking about leadership need to be learned and discussed.”

Thanks to a generous grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving (HFPG), Jen Michno is currently conducting research that will inform the design and implementation of a new module of the Department of Educational Leadership’s UConn Administrator Preparation Program (UCAPP) curriculum that will focus on the area of Family School Community Engagement (FSCE). The new FSCE module will ultimately become part of the curriculum for all UCAPP students, and will also be made available to several HFPG priority school districts across the state for use with currently-practicing administrators.

“There is clear evidence at the national level that there is a lack of focus on Family School Community Engagement in administrator preparation programs across the country.  FSCE practices promote equity in schools and should be an integral part of every individual’s administrator preparation experience. This research addresses this issue by creating an empirically-validated FSCE curriculum module that will reach not only UCAPP students but administrators across Connecticut.” - Jen Michno

Jennie Weiner headshot
Dr. Jennie Weiner

Broadly, Dr. Jennie Weiner’s research aims to redefine conceptualizations of leadership: to “move away from the ‘great (white) man’ theory, both literally and figuratively.”  Her current research project investigates the experiences of black woman administrators–including their current roles and their experiences in preparatory programs–to understand if and how they have experienced microaggressions. After conducting a 10-person pilot study (forthcoming in the Journal of Research on Leadership Education), Weiner, Dr. Laura Burton, and Daron Cyr, a doctoral student in Educational Leadership, were recently awarded the Spencer Foundation Grant for Small Studies. This grant will allow them to widen the scope of the study to 25 participants, and to learn more comprehensively about each participant’s experience and career trajectory. “The ultimate goal is to create opportunities so that leadership itself is more inclusive and equitable in terms of who has access to it and who can succeed in the work,” says Weiner.

“We know from the pilot study that the participants experienced quite a few microaggressions in their administrator preparation programs.  They cited being invisible in the space, never getting to talk about how their racial or gender identities might impact how people respond to them or how they engage in leadership, and a serious lack of curriculum written by anyone other than white men.” - Dr. Jennie Weiner

Whenever there were conversations about race, says Weiner, they were either centered around white privilege or students’ racial identities. “There was a focus on better understanding students from minoritized groups, which implies that the administrators are white,” she says. “And discussions about white privilege, while important, don’t really pertain to black women. There was more than one story in which a woman said she had to listen while instructors tried to convince a white man that white privilege was real. How safe or encouraged could she or anyone else outside our society’s dominant groups feel in that space?”

The impacts of both Michno’s and Weiner’s research are impressive, and neither woman’s work is without challenges. “As new material is introduced,” says Michno, “there is inevitably less time for other topics. Finding that perfect curricular balance is the biggest challenge emerging from this research.” For Weiner, the nature of her research calls for constant growth and learning. “Real change is really hard,” she says. “Every day I see the pain and the unfairness of how discrimination impacts people. I want change to happen yesterday but I also understand that this is not how things work. That said, I am committed to use my privilege to make a difference.”

But with the challenges come successes. “I get most excited when I think about the impact this will have, not only on leader development but also on the students within these school systems,” says Michno.  For Weiner, it’s rewarding to do work that feels relevant: “Maybe I could help somebody feel a little less alone or a little more empowered. Getting to work toward changing things that I think are wrong–what a gift!” Thanks to the HFPG and the Spencer Foundation, Michno and Weiner are making strides toward sustainable change that supports CT's emerging leaders.

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.’”


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.