The University of Alabama paves the way for better public schools
Like many education systems in states across America, Alabama schools are struggling. Issues are myriad: School safety, decreased funding, limited resources, achievement gaps, changing accountability measures, the constant threat of privatization, and a lack of qualified educational leaders and administrators to get things back on track. Educating our youth is one of the most important investments in a state’s future, yet we continue to allow our public education systems — and thereby our children — to flounder.
At The University of Alabama, however, a targeted curriculum aims to alter this trend. UA’s Educational Leadership program serves to educate the educators, teaching them to be excellent administrators, principals, and superintendents at schools across Alabama. By empowering those at the top with real hands-on knowledge and experience, the program is creating a ripple effect of positive change at all levels of the state’s education system.
Dr. Brenda Mendiola is a clinical associate professor at UA’s College of Education and director of the university’s Superintendents’ Academy — the only program in the state with a grant from the Alabama State Department of Education to support advanced professional-development training for aspiring and new superintendents. Mendiola, a former superintendent, has experienced firsthand the need for excellent top-level leadership in public schools — particularly in rural schools like the ones she worked at in Texas.
“After 29 years as a K-12 educator with 13 of those years at some level of leadership (principal, curriculum director, superintendent), I felt I had something to offer aspiring leaders,” she says. “I understand the isolation faced by rural school leaders, the multiple roles they must play, what it’s like to live in a rural community where everyone knows you, and how to make do with limited community resources.”
Mendiola points out a number of problems within the education system, from age-old obstacles like underfunding and gaps caused by poverty and racial inequality to the difficulties that can arise from social media platforms. “This is something I hear leaders talk about when they are together,” she says. “They are dealing with students and adults in their schools who may be using social media in ways that are harmful to themselves or others. Navigating the legalities of what they can and cannot do to address issues and concerns is difficult, and new situations and circumstances arise daily that are outside the realm of current policy and guidelines.”
Mendiola’s passion for outreach has allowed her to visit hundreds of rural schools across Alabama, gaining a keen sense of exactly what these schools need. In response, she’s developed educational leadership programs that zero in on key issues and provide for future leaders’ particular needs. UA offers a specialist and a master’s degree program in Educational Leadership as well as a reduced-hour certification program for educators who already hold a master’s degree but seek the certification necessary to serve as a school administrator. The university is increasing accessibility even further by moving coursework online. “Attending class on campus is difficult since our students are working professionals — they’re primarily teachers,” says Mendiola. “This change will make our programs accessible to students from all parts of the state.”
To prepare school leaders for the inevitable challenges they’ll face, these programs apply theory and research to hands-on practice, including real field experiences in local schools. “Students complete school-improvement activities through action research projects,” says Mendiola. “They examine school data to determine areas of need, complete related research, put the plan into action, and report the results. This is one way of helping them solve the very real problems they will face as school leaders.”
Dr. Yvette Bynum, a clinical assistant professor at UA and program coordinator for the MA and reduced-hour certification programs, says the curriculum has already brought about an important paradigm shift when it comes to the roles of educators and administrators. “An instructional leader contributes a holistic leadership approach to the school’s effectiveness,” she says. “This includes curriculum, data analysis, personnel, and improving the school’s climate and culture, in addition to managerial responsibilities.”
Of course, the best way to see the results of UA’s program is to look at its graduates. “The most satisfying part of my job is hearing that a former student has been hired in their first leadership position,” says Mendiola. “By completing UA’s program, students gain the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need to give them the confidence to take on a leadership role.”
Many of the Educational Leadership program’s graduates have gone on to become principals and superintendents at public schools across the state.
Marsha Johnson spent 19 years teaching in the classroom before she sought a master’s degree in Educational Leadership. She chose UA on the recommendation of her school’s principal, who had successfully completed the program. Today, Johnson is principal of Walker Elementary in Tuscaloosa County and says she would not be there without the education and continued support she received through UA’s Educational Leadership program. “Because the instructors have personal experience in the field that they share along with the course instruction, I was prepared to take on the role of an administrator,” she says. “Another big takeaway from the program was the networking I did with other graduates who’ve gone on to leadership roles in schools. We continue to share strategies to help all of our students succeed.”
Jeff Colegrove is another successful alumnus. The same summer he graduated from UA’s Educational Leadership program, he was offered a job as assistant principal of Etowah High School in Attalla. A year later, he was promoted to principal. And from there his career has only continued to climb — positively affecting thousands of students along the way. “The Educational Leadership program provided me with so much relevant information as a school leader,” says Colegrove. “The focus on reflective practice and equity was pivotal in developing my skills as an administrator.” This fall he enters his third year as principal of Gadsden City High School and has continued to pay it forward by hiring several UA graduates in leadership positions.
Sherry Drake is a current UA student who plans to pursue her first principal position upon graduating. “School leaders must be actively involved in the instructional aspect of the school, not just the managerial side,” she says. “Building relationships within the school and engaging in strategic planning are two key aspects of instructional leadership that I will use in my career now and in the future.”
As Alabama’s educators struggle to solve the state’s educational problems with long-term solutions, this message is an important one to remember: The primary goal of all schools is to teach, and it’s up to every member of the educational community to keep that goal firmly in mind.