Ingrid Clark-Jackson, EdD, ’86, ’12, is interim superintendent for Hazelwood School District. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.

Degree of Impact

Maryville University’s EdD Graduates Empower Local School Districts, One Leader at a Time

by Becky Mollenkamp

Reading time: 9 minutes

Ten years ago, students in the inaugural cohort of Maryville’s Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership program arrived on campus, eager to advance professionally into the central offices of their school systems. As superintendents, principals and teachers, these alumni, and many others who followed in the program, continue to provide impactful, award-winning leadership in schools throughout St. Louis city and county, across Missouri and across the country.

The success of this program has led to additional doctoral programs at Maryville, in teacher leadership and higher education leadership.

“I’m proud of the leaders we’ve helped develop, all of whom are making a difference for kids,” says Catherine Bear, EdD, dean of the School of Education. “They are rethinking how they hire teachers, how they develop resources, and how they support students and parents. We believe every child should have access to a high-quality education, and these leaders can make that happen.”

More than 320 students have graduated from the educational leadership program, which is always evolving to remain relevant and meaningful. “We honor and incorporate feedback from those people who have been through the program and from those hiring our graduates,” Bear says.

“I’m proud of the leaders we’ve helped develop, all of whom are making a difference for kids. They are rethinking how they hire teachers, how they develop resources, and how they support students and parents. We believe every child should have access to a high-quality education, and these leaders can make that happen.”
~ Catherine Bear, EdD, dean of the School of Education

The threads that remain constant, however, are the critical thinking skills the program helps students develop, the action-research approach and the cohort model. Those three elements have given the program far-reaching impact in a very short time, Bear says.

 

Critical Thinking

Initially, Ingrid Clark-Jackson, EdD, ’86, ’12, worried she had made the wrong choice. When she showed up for her first class, she discovered most of her cohort aspired to work in administration. She was already at that level, serving as assistant superintendent for human resources in the Hazelwood School District. “I had to take a step back and think about what I wanted out of the program,” she says.

Very quickly, Clark-Jackson realized she could apply the theories and practices she was learning to her recruiting and hiring efforts, as well as in interactions with her principals. “I liked the reflective piece of the program,” she says. “It got me asking critical questions so I could help my staff reflect on what they could do better to move kids forward.”

“The ‘This I Believe’ statement really got me, and I continue to use it in my everyday practices as superintendent.”

Clark-Jackson was recently named interim superintendent for Hazelwood. She leads the second largest school district in the metropolitan area, overseeing 30 schools that serve nearly 19,000 students across a large portion of North St. Louis County. What she learned in her doctoral program has a great influence on her new role, Clark-Jackson says.

“We did something with Maryville’s philosophy of education that was very powerful,” she says. “The ‘This I Believe’ statement really got me, and I continue to use it in my everyday practices as superintendent.”

Early in the program, doctoral students are asked to create a “This I Believe” statement, which is a personal philosophy about life and about their education beliefs. These statements are revisited during the final semester and revised to reflect changing ideas. Many graduates continue to use their statements as a guiding philosophy throughout their careers.

Clark-Jackson, who also earned her master’s in marketing from Maryville, is a proponent of the doctoral program in educational leadership as an alumna, but also as an employer. She has hired four members of her cohort, and recommends Maryville’s program to her staff and others. “It was the best program,” she says. “It wasn’t just about learning. It was about application, which is very important.”

 

Action Research Skills

Application and action are important concepts to elementary school art teacher Michael Dragoni, ’09, ’13. Although he’s not certain he wants to be an administrator, he enjoys being a school leader. To hone those skills, he enrolled last spring in Maryville’s new Doctor of Education – Teacher Leadership program.

Michael Dragoni, EdD, ’09, ’13, teaches art in the Ritenour School District. Photo by Dan Donovan
Michael Dragoni, ’09, ’13, teaches art in the Ritenour School District. Photo by Dan Donovan

Having already received bachelor and master’s degrees in education from Maryville, Dragoni knew the doctoral program would emphasize action research. “I like that it’s very hands-on, and you can see the impact immediately,” Dragoni says.

The model requires every doctoral candidate to complete a capstone research project addressing a current problem in education. Dragoni and another teacher in his cohort spent their first semester designing a professional development program focused on student discipline strategies, which they will deliver throughout this school year.

“Coupled with the nationwide achievement gap between black and white students, you also see a disciplinary gap,” Dragoni says. “Almost universally, black students are punished harsher than white students. We looked at our district’s discipline data and have developed culturally responsive teaching strategies.”

Dragoni spent his first semester designing a professional development program focused on student discipline strategies.

Dragoni teaches at Buder Elementary in the Ritenour School District, one of the oldest districts in the metropolitan area. Located in northwest St. Louis County, the school system has nearly 6,500 students, with nearly an even split in the population of white and black students. He hopes his capstone project can have a positive effect on discipline and achievement in his district.

The ambitious professional development project is just one example of Dragoni’s commitment to helping students. Just this year, he was named Ritenour’s Teacher of the Year, and also named a Missouri Teacher of the Year finalist. He also won two grants in as many years from the St. Louis-based Innovative Technology in Education fund. Totaling $122,000, the funding has helped introduce technology into Buder classrooms.

With all he has accomplished, Dragoni isn’t finished growing as an educator. His latest degree will push him forward as a leader beyond the classroom. “It’s developing my ability to take on new roles,” he says, “and is giving me a big-picture view of the way schools work.”

 

Powerful Network

Accelerated career growth is a recurring theme among graduates of the doctoral education program. When Rodney Lewis, EdD, ’10, earned his doctorate in educational leadership, he was a physical education teacher who took on additional administrative duties. In just five years, he was named principal for Ballwin Elementary in the Rockwood School District. The west St. Louis County school serves about 500 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

It’s an impressive rise for someone who felt inadequate on the first day of his doctoral program.

“I had just started as an administrative intern in July, and the program started the next month,” he says. “I felt out of place.” Members of his cohort, who made him feel like an equal partner, allayed his fears.

Rodney S. Lewis, EdD, '10, is principal of Ballwin Elementary School. Here, he poses with a group of 4th graders. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
Rodney S. Lewis, EdD, ’10, is principal of Ballwin Elementary School. ©Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.

“Maryville helped me understand that leadership is all about making connections and understanding the will of the group.”

“When you’re in a class with superintendents and high school principals who validate your thoughts, it helps your confidence,” Lewis says. “The program exposed me to leadership in ways I didn’t experience in my master’s program. Maryville helped me understand that leadership is all about making connections and understanding the will of the group.”

The diversity of professional experience among his peers was also inspiring, Lewis says. “Those cohorts were so powerful. You were learning from people in rural districts and from St. Louis public schools. Learning happens through others and with others.”

Lewis built long-lasting and valuable relationships through the program. His first full assistant principal position was a direct result of a cohort connection, and he continues to call upon classmates to brainstorm ideas and keep pace with emerging strategies in education.

He believes the cohort model, combined with the emphasis on critical thinking and real-world application, is responsible for the program’s 96 percent on-time completion rate.

“When you’re enjoying what you do, you will learn,” Lewis says. “The work you’re doing is not fluff. It’s not easy, but it’s real and it’s practical.”