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UT College of Education’s Superintendency Program attracts and prepares education leaders of the future. Houston Independent School District’s Rick Cruz is one of those leaders.

When Rick Cruz was a 5th grade teacher at Joe E. Moreno Elementary in the Houston Independent School District, his students achieved the highest state standardized testing results in the school’s history, with 93 percent passing the exam and 58 percent earning the commended level. Cruz was named Teacher of the Year two years in a row.

Rick Cruz

Photo by Christina S. Murrey

Yet he quickly learned that no matter how successful his students were in the classroom, few of them would actually make it past high school. “They didn’t have the support necessary to actually go on to college,” says Cruz.

Ninety-eight percent of the student population at the elementary were economically disadvantaged and most had no family members who’d attended college. Yet Cruz, who’d double majored in literature and Portuguese at Yale University, knew that colleges were looking for kids just like them to enroll in their schools, and that many highly selective colleges offered qualified students from underserved communities full scholarships and life-changing opportunities.

“I began organizing after-school workshops with fellow teachers to help students and their families learn what it takes to get into these highly selective schools,” Cruz says.

Interest in the workshops grew. Cruz then founded and led a 501(c3) nonprofit organization called the EMERGE Fellowship and the program spread across HISD. It’s currently serving more than 750 students and has helped nearly 200 students gain entry and scholarships allowing them to attend colleges like Harvard, Yale, Penn, Rice, Stanford, Cornell, and Smith.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier had originally encouraged Cruz to start EMERGE and provided the support to expand the program. Says Cruz, “[Grier] was excited about the success of the program and wanted to see it implemented even more widely throughout HISD. He asked me to become an assistant superintendent. I tried to say no because I was initially apprehensive about becoming an administrator.”

But Cruz changed his mind when Grier shared his story. When Grier was a senior in high school, he asked his counselor about the logistics of taking the SAT to gain entrance into college. His counselor tried to dissuade him and told him he’d be better suited for military service given his family’s low-income background. One of Grier’s teachers overheard the conversation and gave him money out of her own pocket to take the test. “Terry’ sincerity and passion for helping students access postsecondary opportunities persuaded me to take on the role,” says Cruz.

Cruz led the district’s College Readiness division for two years as assistant superintendent, preparing 215,000 students across 282 schools for post-secondary success. In that role, he scaled EMERGE, increased scholarship and financial aid offers by more than $70 million, and helped the district achieve record-breaking performance levels on AP, SAT and other college readiness indicators.

Because of the progress made, the district was awarded an $8.5 million grant from a local foundation to scale college readiness efforts even further and ensure that quality college advising was available to all students in the district. Cruz was also recognized by Houston Mayor Annise Parker for his contributions to education and had a day named in his honor.

Cruz was subsequently promoted to major projects officer for the district, a role in which he is responsible for leading several of the district’s key initiatives, including a secondary transformation initiative fueled by a $30 million Race to the Top Grant.

Still, he felt he needed to continue his education. “It was a big jump from teaching to being an administrator and I knew there was a lot I still wanted and needed to learn.” A colleague had earned his Ed. D. in educational administration from the UT College of Education’s Cooperative Superintendency Program and recommended Cruz. “UT’s program is one of the best in the country,” says Cruz, “and I’m learning from the cohort as well as the professors.”

Cruz says what he most enjoys about the program is that it “marries theory with practice; it provides me with a conceptual understanding of the work I am doing, as well as practical ways to improve upon it.” Cruz is also extremely impressed by the strength of the department’s alumni network and feels that he has already grown significantly as a result of the program. “I look forward to becoming a more effective educator and leader,” he says, “and I am excited by the prospect of having a greater impact on the lives of students as a result.”

Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk Executive Director Sharon Vaughn joined a panel of national experts at the White House on November 17 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in Washington, D.C.

Sharon Vaughn at the White House

Vaughn’s presentation on successful research-based interventions for literacy (which can be viewed at this link) took place at the U.S. Department of Education’s Barnard Auditorium. Joining her on the panel were distinguished researchers from across the nation, including Sue Swenson (family engagement), Lynn Fuchs (mathematics), Rob Horner (school climate/social and behavior), Lise Fox (early childhood), Michael Wehmeyer (inclusion), Lisa Dieker (teacher training), and David Test (secondary/transition).

According to the Department of Education, “When IDEA was enacted in 1975, America pledged to provide and ensure that children with disabilities have opportunities to develop their talents and contribute to their communities. That pledge endures today and IDEA continues to provide not only access to the school house, to assessment, and to the general curriculum, but the full promise of inclusion, equity, and opportunity.”

Educational Psychology Professor Toni Falbo and graduate student Sophia Y. Hooper recently conducted and published a meta-analysis of research into China’s only children.

Though in October 2015, China announced that it will allow two children for every couple, effectively dismantling its  one-child policy, the one-child policy had been in effect since the late 1970s. Falbo and Hooper’s research uncovered that in certain contexts the country’s only children have benefited from less psychopathology, like anxiety and depression.

Toni Falbo and graduate student Sophia Y. Hooper

Photo by Christina S. Murrey

“Broadly speaking, there’s a slight advantage for China’s only children in terms of symptoms of psychopathology,” explained Professor of Educational Psychology Falbo. But the findings vary based on whether the only children meet social expectations.

“We quantitatively synthesized the results of 22 studies that compared Chinese only children to their peers. When the sample was college students, only children had lower psychopathology. When the sample consisted of military recruits, however, only children reported more symptoms of psychopathology,” explained Falbo.

The researchers interpret this difference in terms of meeting expectations consistent with social class. In 1979, China began instituting a one-child policy, which, alongside other national policies, was aimed at accelerating the country’s economic development. China began incentivizing parents to invest in quality over quantity with regards to children, providing one-child families with benefits like extra pay and priority in schools. By 2005, the percentage of women aged 35 to 44 with just one child was nearly 80% in large cities like Shanghai. The birth rate in smaller western provinces also dropped, with families having 2-3 children rather than 4-5.

“Only children in China are more likely to be born to educated parents who push them harder to succeed. Those who make it to college meet parental and societal expectations,” said Falbo. Yet if the only children aren’t accepted into college and join the military instead, they suffer more from anxiety and depression than their peers with siblings, who tend to be from working class communities. “The Chinese army prefers recruits from Red Class, who are rural and working class,” said Falbo.

“The advantage the only child may have over a child with siblings in a college setting is reversed in the military setting, according to the data,” explained Falbo. She says that despite this finding, only children still have a chance to adjust to a military environment.

“China’s one-child policy [was] unique in the world and its effects are different from what we see in the U.S., where people have just one child for more personal reasons, such as divorce, rather than political reasons,” explained Falbo.

Falbo and graduate student Hooper conducted a meta-analysis, collecting 22 previous studies of China’s only children, which featured 23 research samples, and studied their results. Their overall analysis, “China’s Only Children and Psychopathology: A Quantitative Synthesis,” shows that China’s only children are more likely to have educated parents and, though they do receive more resources, attention and education, they are not coddled. Instead, they have high expectations and more pressures placed upon them by parents and society for educational and career success.

China’s Only Children and Psychopathy: A Quantitative Synthesis was published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

Allison SkerrettAllison Skerrett, associate professor in the Curriculum and Instruction department at The University of Texas at Austin College of Education, recently published a book for educators and researchers, Teaching Transnational Youth: Literacy and Education in a Changing World.

A Q&A with the language and literacy professor explores just who “transnational youth” are, how her interest in the topic developed, and how her book helps teachers and researchers understand the educational needs and gifts of a diverse population of students who straddle multiple cultures and lands.

What does the term “transnational youth” mean?

Transnational youth are young people who live across two or more countries—spending significant amounts of time in each (for instance, across a year) and maintaining deep ties to each of the places they live. Often they belong to families who are transnational, so their living “here and there” occurs as part of their families’ transnational lifestyle; but there are also youths who have their own transnational experiences independent of their families’ movements.

What specific needs does this book address?

Although literacy scholars have been investigating how transnational youths use reading, writing, and other literacy practices in outside-school contexts to sustain their lifestyles and identities, this book is the first to investigate educational practices that can promote transnational students’ learning in school.

The book offers approaches to literacy curriculum and instruction through which literacy educators can learn about their transnational students’ educational experiences, challenges, resources and academic needs and use what they learn to promote these students’ academic development. Importantly, the book describes how teaching with more awareness of transnationalism ultimately supports the academic development of all students in the classroom.

How did your interest in this topic develop?

I immigrated to the U.S. from the Caribbean island of Dominica as an adolescent, and growing up on Dominica, my family was transnational in that my father worked in other countries, given the economic hardships on Dominica. He would be away for six months at a time before he was able to come home for a visit for two weeks. Thus I have a strong identity in relation to the phenomenon of transnationalism.

I was also an English teacher in the Boston Public Schools before entering doctoral studies, and I had students each year who were transnational. At the time I did not have the term, awareness, or professional knowledge that would have allowed me to understand these students’ lifestyles, resources, and educational needs, and be responsive in my curriculum and teaching. Later, as a teacher educator and researcher at UT Austin, I conducted research in an Austin classroom that included transnational students. I began to focus on transnational students’ educational experiences and conceptualize curriculum and instructional approaches that can promote their academic development.

What are the findings about transnational youth in the classroom? What do they bring to the classroom that educators may be missing, for example?

Transnational students face a unique and severe challenge in literacy development because they must learn through different curriculum and instructional approaches of two or more nations. The research of migration scholars concludes that these challenges result in poor academic outcomes, academic disengagement, and dropout of transnational students from one or more of the schools they attend.

However, literacy research also paints a vibrant picture of the outside-school literate lives and capabilities of transnational youths. For instance, literacy scholarship portrays how transnational youths use reading, writing, and other literacy practices in outside-school contexts to sustain their transnational lifestyles and identities. As one example, transnational students often engage in digital literacies, using social media and the web, to maintain social relationships across the different countries in which they live. Literacy research also reveals how transnational youths develop special forms of intercultural and world knowledge, and expand their linguistic knowledge and language practices, through participating in transnational life.


Dr. Skerrett recently gave two lectures based in her book at the University of California Berkeley. She will be presenting on her book at the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention in Minneapolis in November and at the Literacy Research Association’s Annual Conference in Carlsbad, CA., in December. Dr. Skerrett is currently teaching from her book in a course titled “Teaching Secondary English and Reading” at the University of Texas at Austin this fall. She has received two university research awards to conduct additional research in spring 2016 in a high school English classroom that includes transnational students.

-Photo by Christina S. Murrey

Dr. Sherry Field was awarded the Dr. Truman L. Kelley Award for Scholarship Excellence by Kappa Delta Pi. The award is one of three Founders Awards that pay tribute to the visions of the organization’s founding members and honor stellar exemplars of those visions.

Read the story and view a video in which Field discusses her research.

Kinesiology and Health Education Doctoral Program Ranks 2nd in the Nation

The National Academy of Kinesiology (NAK) announced that The University of Texas at Austin’s doctoral program in Kinesiology and Health Education (KHE) ranks second in the nation.

Says KHE Professor and Department Chair John Bartholomew, “The NAK rankings are based on indicators of faculty productivity, including extramural funding, publications and editorships; along with student productivity, including publications and placements. As such, the steady rise in rankings is a wonderful reflection of the work of our entire department –staff, students, and faculty. I could not be more proud of their achievement.”

Read the story on our website to find out more.

Department Chair Wins Massey Award

Cinthia Salinas, associate professor and new chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin was named this year’s recipient of the Elizabeth Shatto Massey Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. The Massey Award recognizes a “teacher of teachers,” one who inspires and prepares future elementary and secondary school teachers, and includes a $12,000 gift.

Salinas works with future elementary and secondary social studies teachers as they enter increasingly linguistically and culturally diverse 21st-century classrooms.

Follow the link for the full story and more about the Massey Award.

One More River to Cross

Immigration and Language Barriers Could Not Deter This Education Champion

In April, College of Education bilingual education major Mayte De Paz was named a McNair Scholar recipient. The McNair is a prestigious award and the process is competitive. But Mayte has had years of practice beating seemingly insurmountable odds. She first began doing so when she was just six years old.

“When I was a child in Trojes, Mexico, I farmed with my mom and sisters. I learned how to work in the fields. We grew flowers and food, like corn and tomatoes, and raised animals,” explains De Paz.

Mayte De Paz

Mayte De Paz (Photo by: Christina S. Murrey)

The family farmed one side of a river and lived on the other. The river would rise during the day, making the return crossing laborious, even treacherous. “The walk home was wet and muddy, and each day we’d have to construct makeshift bridges by filling bags with dirt and bricks to try to make it across. Not everyone was successful making it across and would end up trapped for the night away from their homes.”

When Mayte was 12, her family moved to El Potrero Nuevo León. It was the first time she had a chance to attend school on a regular basis. “There wasn’t time to go to school when we were farming, so I was 12 years old and did not know how to read or write.” The family lived in Monterrey for five years before immigrating to the United States when Mayte was 17. She and her sister enrolled in school in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas. Entrance exams placed Mayte and her younger sister in their freshman year of high school.

“I didn’t know any English,” she says. “I started watching TV, reading aloud. I got an English-Spanish dictionary.” Though she struggled with reading and writing, she excelled in sciences and math. “I liked biology because I could understand it. I stayed for tutoring and my teacher would tell us about the next class. I made an 85.”

Despite the language barrier, Mayte made the B honor roll her freshman year.

Single-minded Perseverance

“But I wanted more,” Mayte says. She spent many days after school watching other students play soccer. “I wanted to play, but I was too shy to ask. Finally, I asked the coach and I went to tryouts. I felt like a bird flying. I began to play on the team. I made it to varsity. I got a jacket. I joined student council and ROTC, and I became the company commander; I joined the multicultural club too. I wanted to be part of the National Honors Society, but you had to be in the top 10%, and I didn’t have the GPA and grades. I needed an 87.9.”

She didn’t let that challenge stop her either. “Each semester I would try harder. I’d go to my counselor and she’d say, ‘Not yet, Mayte, but keep trying.’ Then finally I made it.”

Mayte was accepted at UT Arlington, “but I didn’t go because my parents said no. My parents thought I was crazy to follow a different path. But I decided that if they didn’t allow me, I would keep going for myself.”

She enrolled in community college, where she tackled yet another barrier.

“I could not pass the writing class,” she says. “If you make three major errors on the writing test—things like subject/verb agreement or fragment errors, you can’t pass. I took the test nine times. I couldn’t take English, government or history until I passed that class.” But she excelled at math. The school began to notice her math ability and she earned a scholarship. “I was happy. I finally took the writing test the last time. Fifteen students took it and only four passed. When I found out that I passed I fell on the ground crying.”

Discovering her Passion, with a Little Help

Mayte always wanted to attend The University of Texas in Austin, but she thought that goal was out of reach. “I was in community college for six years. I thought UT was for rich, really smart people; but when I decided to try to get in, my professors didn’t hesitate to support me. I even got a letter of recommendation from the community college president.”

In 2014, the math and science whiz was accepted into the Cockrell School of Engineering, which humbled her. “It’s extremely difficult to get into the school of engineering at UT. I knew it was a big honor.” She spent her first semester trying to find out what she wanted to do, pursue and be. That’s when Mayte discovered something that troubled her: “I wanted to be involved more directly with making people’s lives better, but I didn’t see myself doing that by becoming an engineer.”

Mayte sought out professors, mentors and counselors to help with her dilemma. She realized that, though she excelled at math and science, her English language skills kept her from uncovering her true academic and career passion: education.

So Mayte changed her major to bilingual education. She credits Jessica Silva [academic advising coordinator in the College of Education] with encouraging her to continue on for her Ph.D. and to apply for the McNair Scholars program. The McNair Scholars program works to increase the number of students in doctoral degree programs who are low-income and first-generation undergraduates, or students who come from groups underrepresented in graduate education. Program participants must be committed to enrolling in graduate programs with an end goal of successfully completing a Ph.D.

The biggest challenge in earning the prestigious award? “I had to write an essay,” she says, proudly. “I wrote about how I want to help the community.”

Building a Stronger Bridge

Ph.D, Candidate’s White House Internship Further Supports First-Generation Latino Students

A native of the Texas Rio Grande Valley, current UT College of Education Ph.D. student Joanna Sanchez was a first-generation college student who remembers how difficult the transition to higher education was, especially without the support of family and community. Sanchez received a Gates Millennium Scholarship in its inaugural year, 1999. The scholarship, which provides financial assistance to outstanding minority students with significant financial need, was instrumental in helping Joanna earn a bachelor’s degree in geosciences from Trinity University. She went on to earn a master’s in geographic information science from the University of Denver.

Joanna Sanchez

Joanna Sanchez

Joanna then embarked on a successful career in geographic information systems (GIS), but volunteering with the Gates program led her to discover her true calling. “Part of my responsibility as a Gates Millennium Scholar was to speak to students in the community about the program and my experience,” says Joanna. Not only did she find that engagement fulfilling, she also saw a distinct void that needed to be filled. “As in my own experience, I saw a lack of family support for first-generation students to leave home and go off into the unknown world of college. I began to understand how important it is for the families of these students to become educated about the opportunities the college journey gives their young people.”

“It’s scary for students to leave the Valley, with no support. And their families are afraid that if their children leave, they won’t come back,” she explains. “But I get to show them not only that it is possible for their kids to do well, but that, like me, they can and do come back.”

Joanna channelled her passion for supporting students and their families into a nonprofit organization that she founded in the Rio Grande Valley called Odisea. Odisea’s mission is to work with local high school students and parents to try to make the transition from high school to moving away from home for college easier. Her nonprofit work proved so inspiring that she made it her career. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in educational policy and planning. Her research interests include college access, minority first-generation college students and school/family/community partnerships. Joanna was named a 2014-2016 Barbara L. Jackson Scholar and, this summer, the third-year doctoral student was named an Archer Fellow.

It was the Archer Fellowship that opened the door to the White House. The program was established by The University of Texas System and former U.S. Representative Bill Archer to bring students to Washington, D.C., to participate in internships and attend classes focusing on policy, history and advocacy. Joanna took classes in D.C. this summer and found an internship in a White House program that is applicable to her research and career goals. “There are five White House initiatives on educational excellence. Each one focuses on studying educational policies and programs within a particular minority or underrepresented group. My work this summer focuses on the Hispanic community. It’s a great fit with my work at Odisea and my research. There can be a huge disconnect between local and federal efforts in the field, and I want to work on building that connection.”



Gaining pre-service practicum experience during the sun-drenched summer months is a challenge for students pursuing teaching certification. But this summer, The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education teamed up with the nonprofit Breakthrough Austin, forging a relationship that gives our students a chance to gain valuable teaching experience and professional development hours needed for certification.

“Each day, the students blew us away with the knowledge they brought into the classroom along with their desire to remain committed to an academic program during their precious summer vacation,” says Dhara Lad, a UTeach Urban Teachers (UTUT) junior. “The greatest moments at Breakthrough involved seeing students have their very own breakthroughs, whether that be in finding books enjoyable, overcoming a math strategy, identifying college as a priority, or breaking out of their shell and stepping into positions of leadership and public speaking roles.”

Lad, who is majoring in International Relations and Global Studies and Asian Cultures and Languages, taught 7th graders African American Civil Rights and Make It Up as You Go, an improvisation class. When asked about the summer experience, she admits it was exhausting but worth it: “The program allowed us to tweak existing curriculum while also giving us the complete freedom to design and execute our own lessons and unit plans, incorporating material relevant to the lives of our students like gentrification, immigration, gay marriage and racism.”

Breakthrough Austin is part of a national nonprofit system that provides out-of-school learning and academic case management to students from low-income communities who will be the first in their families to graduate from college. The service lasts from middle school through college. During the summer break, middle school students take academic classes. They also spend time learning skills and receiving counseling that will help them succeed academically and navigate a world that is new to them and their families. Though the Breakthrough summer program has taken place at UT for more than a decade, this is the first year College of Education students have taken part as instructors.

“Finding meaningful summer placements where our students gain professional development hours is a struggle,” explains Thea Williamson, a doctoral student in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and instructional coach for the Breakthrough project. “Earlier in the year, Cinthia Salinas (Curriculum and Instruction chair and professor) reached out to Breakthrough to offer the services of UTeach Urban Teachers students as summer school academic instructors. It was a win-win,” she says.

UTeach Urban Teachers prepares English and Social Studies educators to thrive in the context of urban schools. UTUT students took two classes this semester: Literacy Across the Disciplines, taught by College of Education graduate student Alina Pruitt, and Sociocultural Influences on Learning, taught by graduate student Kevin Magill. The courses gave UTUT students theoretical knowledge pertinent to teaching students with diverse cultural backgrounds, like those at Breakthrough.

Says Magill, “The partnership gave our students a unique, supportive community environment to develop their skills through first-hand experience. They were able to develop fairly dynamic insights into many elements of teaching in a short time. As a cohort they came together in support of each other and their students, having developed confidence in the classroom, in the community, and working with parents. They now understand what creative, interesting lesson plans look like and how to implement them. They are quite prepared for their intern teaching experience this fall.”

Michael Griffith, executive director of Breakthrough Austin, says he’s excited about the new relationship between the college and his organization. “The College of Education at UT is one of the best colleges of education in the country. It’s remarkable that our students get to benefit from that. I’m very humbled by it.”


For three days this June, more than 600 STEM educators and supporters came together to share and network at the Texas Regional Collaboratives for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching’s 21st annual meeting. This year’s three-day event united participants under the theme “Sharing Our Story,” which educators enthusiastically embraced, sharing lessons, programs, and successes. The event demonstrates why Texas Regional Collaboratives (TRC) is a unique resource for pre-K—12-grade math and science educators across the state. Though all states receive federal funding to improve K-12 science and math education, TRC is unique in its broad reach. There are 9,000 TRC teachers in the state of Texas, with one in every county.

TRC Event Photo 1A luncheon on a Tuesday kicked off more than 83 presentations and 50 exhibits. Festivities highlighted the talent, passion, and imagination of the educators themselves, who manned booths that showcased their interpretation of the event’s theme. From a storytelling booth to one decorated to resemble the movie Raiders of the Lost Arc, each exhibit featured interactive lessons and examples of student work.

Sharing ideas and successful lessons is a big part of what TRC helps educators do. Launched in 1991 through the tireless efforts of Dr. Kamil A. Jbeily, agencies, and educators across Texas, the goal of TRC was to create regional partnerships built on intellectual and cost-sharing strategies that provide science teachers with relevant, sustained, and high-intensity professional development. In 1996 the Texas Education Agency, a program sponsor, partnered with UT and moved TRC to campus. College of Education Professor James P. Barufaldi, the Ruben E. Hinojosa Regents Professor and director of the Science and Mathematics Education Center, became the organization’s principal investigator. Barufaldi, affectionately referred to as “the Godfather of STEM,” was honored at this year’s event, as colleagues celebrated his retirement and years of outstanding service.

The collaboratives themselves are made up of project leaders, mentor teachers, and cadre teachers who participate in professional development to learn strategies that better teach math and science. The educators work with each other, share ideas back at their home schools and districts, and become leaders in their field.

Educator Tera Collins started her career teaching 1st grade in Rusk ISD, a small district, with no mentor teacher. She eventually moved to 8th-grade physics and geology, though her science knowledge was lacking. She returned to school at UT-Tyler, where she became involved in a collaborative. There, she learned new teaching strategies and strengthened her knowledge base. Within one year, her students’ standardized test scores rose 17 points, from 71 percent to 88 percent, which was 13 points above the state average. Collins became a science specialist at Service Region 7 and is now a project director, presenting her knowledge and strategies to educators nationally.

TRC Event Photo 2In her moving keynote speech, Brenda Williams illustrated the power of the collaboratives. Four years ago, Williams was asked to resign from her position as a 4th grade teacher because of statewide budget cuts. She was offered a 5th grade science position in a neighboring district where she would be the only science teacher. This was not necessarily a welcome offer. Williams says, “In college, I’d always struggled with math and science.” Her fear of being responsible for teaching science to others led her to the University of North Texas Collaborative.

“My knowledge increased tenfold. I became more of a facilitator in my classroom. I made changes in how I taught. I forged bonds with other teachers across districts. High school and middle school teachers helped me learn higher concepts.” In 2013 her principal noticed. She was named Teacher of the Year at Argyle Elementary and then for the district. That was followed by nomination for State Teacher of the Year.

Williams says the greatest achievement came when she found out her students earned a 98 percent pass rate on the STAAR exam. “Three years of monthly classes, workshops, and meet-ups—I am living my philosophy of education.”

Dr. Jbeily, founder and director of the TRC, closed the annual meeting with remarks to the gathered educators. “Helping teachers teach from the mind and the heart is exactly what the TRC is about,” he said. “We want to treat you with honor and respect and give you opportunities to grow.”


Former University of Texas and NFL running back Priest Holmes’s list of accomplishments is long. In 1992, before joining the Longhorns, he led San Antonio’s John Marshall High School football team to the Texas State Championship game. In 1997, he earned a Super Bowl ring with the Baltimore Ravens. Later, with the Kansas City Chiefs, he became the NFL’s leading rusher and went on to break Marshall Faulk’s NFL record for total touchdowns in a season.  Holmes racked up one athletic win after another before retiring from the NFL in 2007.

But there stood one goal that he had yet to achieve: earning his bachelor’s degree. On Friday, May 22, 2015, Holmes met that challenge too, adding a degree in youth and community studies from UT’s College of Education to his list of accomplishments.

“Even though playing professionally in the NFL was one of my long-term goals, not completing my degree was still weighing on me. Philanthropic work has been a huge part of my mission and purpose, but I knew I could only evolve so much until I could go back and finish it. I knew doing so would not only benefit my philanthropic goals but also my family, hopefully inspiring my kids and other individuals to stay motivated to learn everything about their field of interest and not just settle on what they have at the moment. I wanted to be able to inspire young athletes who may be in similar situations to not give up on their educational goals, even if life takes them in new directions.”

Teachable Moment

But according to the 41 year old, who founded the Priest Holmes Foundation in 2005 to help young students maximize their potential, getting to his goal was a challenge he initially found “intimidating. ” Returning to school “quickly became a very humbling experience because I felt very out of my element,” he explained. “From registering for classes, which used to be done sitting with a counselor, to submitting papers, quizzes and exams online, and sitting in class while being the only person without a laptop who was taking notes by hand—I knew I needed to adjust. I wasn’t used to feeling as if everything was foreign.”

Not one to back away from a challenge, however, Holmes began to reflect on the idea that his experience of discomfort could be a teachable moment for people he intends to serve. “I knew I could really turn this experience into support for any person who came to me for advice,” he said. “Coming back and being a little older, with a family and a business, and commuting every Wednesday and Thursday from San Antonio, I realized that I could really support a completely new generation, and that is a major part of my mission.”

Located in San Antonio, the Priest Holmes Foundation helps lay the groundwork to encourage education, enhance the lives of children and empower young people through comprehensive programs and scholarships. One of the foundation’s programs, Fundamentals in Training, is an afterschool program that promotes health and wellness, physical fitness and healthy choices, all activities Holmes is intimately familiar with.

The UT Experience

Priest HolmesFueled in part by his desire to earn his UT-T-Ring [a class  ring for graduating student athletes], Holmes said that a highlight of his return to school was “returning to UT itself—“the campus, friends, classes and professors. I firmly believe that if I had to finish my degree anywhere else, my experience wouldn’t have been as enjoyable.” And though he said all of his professors stood out in unique ways because of how their personal experience enhanced their ability to provide a quality classroom experience, he mentioned Adjunct Associate Professor James Patton, who teaches ALD 322: Individual Differences, as someone particularly valuable to his education. “Dr. Patton seems to have genuine compassion for working with individuals with disabilities,” said Priest. “He’s not only given me inspiration, but has been able to captivate the entire class into focusing on the overall purpose of choosing that field in particular. He’s a solid role model and an ambassador for the special needs. I look up to him and respect him tremendously.”

Another First

Reflecting on his latest achievement, Holmes was reminded of words from former Kansas City Chiefs coach, Dick Vermeil: “Coach Vermeil would ask the team the morning after each game, ‘When was the last time you did something for the first time?’ I’ve accomplished many first-time moments with the Chiefs—touchdown records, offensive records and individual records. And no matter how rewarding those accomplishments have been, there really is nothing like experiencing something for the first time. This Friday, I will experience another first, as I walk across the stage at The University of Texas.”


UT Special Education Professors Awarded $11 Million for Research

Spring and summer 2015 saw tremendous support for special education research at the College of Education. Four research projects within the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk (MCPER) were awarded federal grants totaling more than $11 million. Professor Mark O’Reilly, chair of the Department of Special Education, says, “I am delighted with the recent and continued success of our faculty to attract highly competitive research funding. These outstanding achievements further affirm the top-ranked status of the department.”

The awards demonstrate national recognition and support for ideas and research that have the potential to improve practices in math and literacy as well as learning disabilities for students at risk.

Sarah Powell: Helping kids with math difficulty solve word problems

The U.S. Department of Education awarded a four-year, $3 million grant to Sarah Powell, assistant professor in the Department of Special Education, to study ways to help students better solve word-problems in math. Powell’s colleague, Professor Marcia Barnes, will assist with the grant-funded research.

Being proficient at solving word problems is necessary for successful math performance, but many students are not adequately prepared. That is especially true for students who find mathematics to be difficult. These students demonstrate significantly lower word-problem performance and make significantly more errors when solving word problems than peers without difficulty in math. Powell’s study will assess the effectiveness of word-problem equation-solving tutoring on improving performance in these students.

Each year, the researchers will recruit 150 Austin-area third-graders who have difficulty in math and assign them to one of two math-tutoring programs or keep them in their usual school environment. These conditions will allow Powell and her team to isolate the effects of equation-solving instruction within word-problem instruction and compare the results with traditional classroom teaching. Over a three-year period, 450 students will participate in the study.

Elizabeth Swanson: Discovering the impact of teacher professional development on fourth grade vocabulary, comprehension

Senior Research Associate Elizabeth Swanson will lead a new $3.5 million, four-year federal grant to gauge the effectiveness of different professional development models aimed at vocabulary and reading comprehension instruction in fourth-grade content area classes. UT Meadows Center Executive Director Sharon Vaughn and Associate Director Greg Roberts will be co-principal investigators. Funding is through the National Center for Education Research.

In each research year of the new project, Examining the Efficacy of Differential Levels of Professional Development for Teaching Content Area Reading Strategies, 60 Austin ISD fourth-grade teachers and their students will participate. Teachers will attend an annual conference at UT Austin where they will learn the vocabulary and comprehension components to use in their classrooms over the course of the school year.

The project will measure and compare the effectiveness of professional development versus a control condition in the first year, then compare different types of professional development in subsequent years.

“These efficacy grants are exceedingly competitive. These young scholars are amazing assets to the Meadows Center, the Department of Special Education and The University of Texas at Austin. I look forward to learning more about how the findings from their research influence our knowledge and practice in schools,” Vaughn says.

Sharon Vaughn: Improving literacy, engagement and school completion among at-risk English learners

Vaughn will be the principal investigator for a $3.5 Institute for Education Science Goal (IES) 3 grant to launch a four-year project to improve literacy, increase engagement and prevent dropout among at-risk high school English learners. The project, Preventing Dropout Among At-Risk Youth: A Study of Project GOAL With English Learners, will provide small-group reading instruction and a dropout prevention program to high school English learners who are struggling readers and are at risk of dropping out of school.

Says Vaughn, “This study aims to investigate the efficacy of a reading and dropout prevention program separately and in combination on the reading and school retention outcomes of students with significant reading problems.”

The interventions will be provided to students in their 9th- and 10th-grade years, and follow-up measures of cognitive and behavioral outcomes will be collected during their 11th- and 12th-grade years.

Diane Pedrotty Bryant: Training doctoral students in learning disabilities and behavioral disorders

UT Mathematics Institute Director Diane Pedrotty Bryant will be the principal investigator on a new project to train doctoral students in learning disabilities and behavior disorders. Meadows Center Executive Director Sharon Vaughn will be a co-principal investigator on the project. The two received a $1.2 million, five-year grant from the Office of Special Education Programs within the U.S. Department of Education.

The purpose of the project is to prepare five highly qualified doctoral graduates to bridge the gap between research and practice by becoming leaders who are well-trained in multitiered systems of support for students with learning disabilities and behavior disorders. The project will use a research-to-practice leadership model that engages the collaborative efforts of faculty in the UT College of Education’s Department of Special Education, professional development and policy leaders at the Meadows Center and the Vaughn Gross Center for Reading and Language Arts, and Texas school district leaders.