As a high school student in Cedar Hill, Texas, Alexandra Thibeaux met one of the most important people in her life: Adela Just, her English teacher.
“She recognized something in me that I didn’t know was there,” says Thibeaux, a junior in the University Honors Program majoring in history with a minor in political science. “She really encouraged my writing and academic performance, which had a profound influence on me. As a result, I know I want to have that kind of impact on students’ lives.”
Thibeaux’s SMU work-study assignment at Sidney Lanier Expressive Arts Vanguard, a public elementary school in West Dallas, galvanized her interest in pursuing a career linked to education. Now, three days each week, Thibeaux helps children in teacher Chandra Hanks’ third-grade class with math and reading.
Lanier Principal Alyssa Peraza connected with SMU’s work-study program several years ago through the Dallas Faith Communities Coalition (DFCC), a nonprofit organization committed to the transformation of West Dallas through education. The coalition became part of the new Center on Communities and Education at SMU’s Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development late last year.
The new center serves as the backbone organization for The School Zone, a collaboration among 10 public schools and 20 nonprofit agencies. The School Zone provides a range of resources – from parent training to after-school homework assistance – focused on closing “the education gap in West Dallas,” says Regina Nippert, former executive director of the DFCC who now heads the Center on Communities and Education (CCE) at SMU.
The CCE operates in an area of the city where only 33 percent of residents over age 18 have high school diplomas.
“We will contribute to the education mission of the coalition by assessing what works, measuring outcomes and developing programs that are meaningful to West Dallas,” emphasizes David Chard, Leon Simmons Endowed Dean of the Simmons School.
While the neighborhood west of downtown Dallas provides the initial context, communities everywhere will benefit from research that results in a practical and sustainable model for effective instruction, Chard says.
The CCE is among the most recent University-community partnerships to build on a century of tradition. While launching SMU’s centennial celebration in 2011, President R. Gerald Turner traced the roots of the Simmons School to the mutually beneficial SMU-Dallas relationship: “We established a new school of education focused on applied research in response to the needs we were hearing from our area superintendents and others in the schools.”
Although education and teacher certification programs had long been a part of the SMU curriculum, the University expanded its commitment to the field by creating the School of Education and Human Development in 2005.
A $20 million gift from Harold C. and Annette Caldwell Simmons in 2007 provided an endowment for the school and its new headquarters, the Annette Caldwell Simmons Hall. During festivities marking its first anniversary in September, the dean called SMU’s hub for education research a “game-changer.” The state-of-the-art facility accommodates many of the faculty, staff and students who once were housed at 12 sites on campus.
“The ability to gather together in one place changes the whole dynamic of the faculty,” contributing to a research environment where they can collaborate productively with each other and their students, explains Chard, who became dean in 2007.
Discover, Document, Deliver
Rigorous academic inquiry steers the national conversation about education reform “away from the realm of human interest and into an evidence-based context,” says Chard, a nationally known expert on the role of instruction in literacy and the development of numeracy skills.
His “prove it” philosophy comes after almost 10 years on the frontline as a high school teacher, followed by more than a decade of scholarship aimed at helping children with learning disabilities or at risk for school failure. Over the course of his career, Chard’s research and development projects have been awarded more than $11 million in federal, state and private grants.
Chard’s leadership in education research has received recognition from President Barack Obama, who appointed him to the Board of Directors of the National Board for Education Sciences. The board advises the president and sets priorities for the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. Chard was sworn in as a member of the board June 20.
The Simmons research portfolio encompasses explorations in vital areas of education and human development, including foundational literacy and numeracy skills; the challenges presented by language barriers, learning difficulties and intellectual disabilities; the special needs of gifted youth; teacher and leadership training; the mechanics of movement; and human physiology.
Faculty research has garnered significant funding from federal, state and private sources. From 2009 through 2011, the school received more than $10 million in grants, with almost $4 million obtained in 2011.
Last year, a $201,000 grant from The Meadows Foundation provided start-up funding for the school’s new Research in Mathematics Education (RME) program. The research and outreach unit’s mission is to provide the instructional resources, assessment tools and training that K-12 educators need to improve student achievement in math.
“Most schools are swimming in data,” says RME Director Leanne Ketterlin Geller, an expert in measuring and assessing mathematics skills. “We have to think carefully about which data we collect and how we collect it. We have to gather information that will guide instruction for struggling students.”
Investigating Human Development
In the Simmons School’s Department of Applied Physiology and Wellness, faculty and students examine the biological basis of health and fitness.
During one of the department’s recent Research on Exercise and Wellness Colloquiums, Peter Weyand shared with the SMU community insights from his groundbreaking analyses of the mechanics of running. Weyand, an associate professor of applied physiology and biomechanics, directs the SMU Locomotor Performance Laboratory. Read more …
The Simmons School’s investigative interests align with two landmark education initiatives of the George W. Bush Institute. Chard and Ketterlin Geller are among the nation’s top researchers participating in Middle School Matters, the most comprehensive research-based program ever applied to middle schools. The program’s goal is to use proven practices to prepare middle-school students for academic success in high school.
The Bush Institute’s Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL) is a national program to transform the way school districts identify, recruit, prepare, empower and evaluate their leaders. Simmons’ new ED-Entrepreneur Center (EEC) is an AREL operating program and will be sharing its research data with the Bush Institute.
The EEC coalesces efforts of the Simmons School and Teaching Trust, a nonprofit organization established by Rosemary Perlmeter, founder of Uplift Education charter schools and a former business executive, and Ellen Wood, a financial and social investment consultant.
“We’re proud and appreciative of the great support we receive from Dean Chard and the faculty and staff engaged in our Middle School Matters program, as well as the involvement of the Ed-Entrepreneur Center in our Alliance to Reform Education Leadership, an emerging leader in the work of developing excellent school principals,” says Kerri L. Briggs, the Bush Institute’s director of education reform.
Visionary Leaders, Better Schools
The education equation is completed by teachers and principals equipped with the research-based knowledge they need to boost schools out of mediocrity and into excellence.
“In the Simmons School, we consistently monitor our students’ progress and evaluate our programs, changing coursework as needed to address the latest issues,” explains Lee Alvoid, clinical associate professor and chair of the Department of Education Policy and Leadership at SMU. “Right now, with K-12 school budgets being downsized, we need to help our students be more efficient in resource allocation, as well as become more creative in seeking funding opportunities outside the schools.”
The department’s newest program, the Master’s in Education Leadership with an Urban School Specialization, borrows elements from national models for competency-based principal preparation, as well as the corporate executive training playbook, to prepare school leaders for the challenges of the inner-city learning environment. First-year coursework includes classes taught by SMU’s Cox School of Business faculty.
“The best research on leadership models, change management, coaching and conflict resolution comes from combining effective new programs in education with select aspects of the business discipline,” Alvoid explains.
The first group of 20 students started the two-year program last June. The 45-hour, part-time program was developed in concert with SMU’s ED-Entrepreneur Center.
“It’s very ambitious because only a few programs in the country are stepping back and relying heavily on experiential learning built around a competency-based framework,” says Perlmeter, senior director of leadership programs for EEC. “We continuously measure our students’ application of skills over the two years of the program.”
Lyndin Kish, a fifth-grade teacher at Summit Preparatory, an Uplift Education charter school, and a student in the urban specialization track, says her most important take-away so far is “a refined lens through which I view my school leaders. Not only have I gained a much clearer vision of what excellent school leadership can and should look like, but I have a much better understanding of the discrete actions school leaders can take to get there.”