Doctors in the House
First Ed.D. class prepares to graduate
By Chad Osborne
Working in school administration is a rewarding but often demanding position, with enormous commitments and long hours stretching the boundaries way beyond a typical 40-hour workweek.
Yet, nearly three years ago, a small group of administrators from Virginia public schools decided to tack even greater responsibilities onto their already laborious schedules by enrolling in Radford University’s then-new Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) program.
“All of our students work full time and have very heavy-responsibility jobs,” explained Brad Bizzell, Ph.D., the program’s director. “We have superintendents and directors and high school principals. Some work 60 and 70 hours a week before they even begin their doctoral work.”
Sandy Stayer ’91 is one of those students who jumped headfirst into the program when the first cohort took shape in January 2020. She was hesitant to enroll at first, but a couple of her fellow Henry County Public Schools administrators convinced her it was a perfect program for her and the school system she guides as superintendent. But it only took a small nudge to fully commit because, as Strayer said, “we’ve been begging for this program for years.”
Radford University’s Doctor of Education degree prepares practicing professional educators to fill positions as educational leaders at the district level in Virginia.
Administered by the College of Education and Human Development, this 63-credit hour program includes courses in educational foundations, educational leadership, applied research, field experiences and elective choices. The fully online program is designed to be completed in three years as a part-time student, and it qualifies individuals for licensure as a superintendent.
“We are not preparing people to go into higher education and be researchers,” said Bizzell, who also is a faculty member in the program.
“We are preparing people to lead school divisions.”
For Strayer, who has served as Henry County’s superintendent since 2018, enrolling in the doctoral program meant following her joy and dedication to helping kids learn. “I’m very passionate about making education better,” she said.
Part of the program, Bizzell said, is asking each student who enrolls in the program “to think of a problem or concern within their school or school division that they want to attempt to solve.”
And then, “we engage them with a series of tools and processes around school improvement to address the problem with the idea being they will take those tools and processes with them to use for any subsequent problems they face as a school leader,” Bizzell continued. “Our students are gaining process expertise.”
The tools and processes have been especially beneficial to Strayer, who is enrolled in the program with three fellow administrators from Henry County: Wendy Durham ’97, director of K-12 instruction; Matthew Woods, director of student support services; and Elizabeth Motley ’06, principal at Drewry Mason Elementary School.
“One benefit to this program is it gives us a common language we can use to help us find solutions,” Strayer explained. “It helps us understand that first, you have to look really deeply at a problem and understand the root causes, and we discuss among ourselves ways we can analyze and solve an issue.
“For example,” she continued, “Wendy is working on coaching and professional development, Matt is working with leadership, and Liz is working on improving scores in her school. We all have issues we tackle daily, and in this program, we find ourselves talking with each other and collaborating with others before we enact a solution to something we think might be a problem.”
The Henry County contingent said there is added value in working with individuals from other school systems from around Virginia.
“The networking piece of the program is so big,” Woods said. “I’m always eager to connect with other folks in other districts, even if they don’t have the same role as me, just to bounce an idea off of them. That’s one of the beauties of this doctoral program.”
Those connections were especially helpful when the COVID-19 global health pandemic closed school buildings and moved classes online in March 2020, just weeks into the cohort’s first courses in the program.
“This program was an absolute blessing during that time,” Durham said. “We were able to network with people across the entire state of Virginia and see how they were handling things during the pandemic.”
Everyone stuck with the program, which is a bit unusual for a doctoral program, Bizzell said, and each of the 20-member cohort is scheduled to graduate in December 2022. “That’s a huge success,” he said.
Students who first enrolled in the program had an average of 10 years of experience in school division leadership, but that experience didn’t immediately gel into confidence when it came to the program. “They were smart and had such incredible life and professional experiences,” Bizzell noted. Yet, many of them came in with apprehension about embarking on doctoral work.
“They came in questioning whether they are capable of doctoral work; they came in not fully realizing their life’s experiences as an educator and how much value they added to the program because of those experiences,” Bizzell explained. “They’ve all experienced growth, and I think they’ve all developed a greater confidence in themselves.”
And because of the collaborations and efforts students in the cohort put forth, “the program is helping to change how school divisions operate,” Bizzell said, “which is our intended outcome.”
And that, said Motley, who, like Woods, is the parent of a young child, makes all the work and extra hours worth the sacrifice.
“When the rubber meets the road, we’re actually putting the knowledge we are learning from the doctoral program into place every single day to try to improve education for our students,” she said. “It’s all for the betterment of our school systems, our students and our communities.”