Feature Article

The Forefront of Education

Lasell Students Prepare to be Leaders in the Field

Dr. Claudia Rinaldi, Education Department chair and associate professor

There's a buzz around Lasell's Education Department lately. The number of Ed majors has more than doubled, exciting new classroom opportunities in Newton and Boston exist and successful alums are returning to campus to guide a new generation toward success in the field.

This resurgence is led by an active and motivated group of faculty, with Associate Professor Claudia Rinaldi, Ph. D., the Department's new chair, as the engine.

Rinaldi knew when she arrived on campus a year ago that the Education Department was poised for greatness.

"I saw very connected students and faculty in a place where real teaching and learning happens in collaborative ways," says Rinaldi, whose previous positions include professor of Special Education at both the University of Wisconsin and Boston College as well as an assistant director at the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative at Education Development Center Inc. in Waltham, MA.

Rinaldi was immediately impressed with the Department's advanced study course for juniors and seniors, where students receive credit for co-teaching classes with faculty. Many aspects of the class caught her eye, including the hands-on way the co-teaching experience helps to build a future "teacher-leader" - a concept important to Rinaldi.

"These unique opportunities [for the students] really resonated. Everything came to life for them in the classroom," she tells Leaves.

Rinaldi believed the ground was fertile for a number of new initiatives that would put the Education Department, and its graduates, on unique footing.

In the past several months, she and the Department faculty have launched a multi-pronged approach to bring Lasell to the forefront of teacher training, improve graduate success and establish the Department as a leader in the effort to increase the number of minority teachers in the field.

Achievements from this strategy have already accumulated.

New test preparation workshops for Education students -- who must pass a series of standardized education licensure tests (Massachusetts Test for Education Licensure) to teach in the Commonwealth -- have helped improve outcomes.

The Department recently unveiled new virtual "avatar" classroom technology where Education students teach a virtual classroom filled with "students" who can be pre-programmed for certain real-life scenarios, including behavioral issues and others. With this technology, Education majors quickly move to teacher mode and can practice their skills responding to the situations that play out before them.

In addition, the Department recently created a partnership with the Marlborough (MA) Public Schools and Mass Bay Community College to build new pathways for minority students interested in exploring the education field. According to Rinaldi, the project is designed to build a pipeline to college for students who previously did not see education as a career path.

The project aims to provide on-site support, mentoring and even college visits to increase the number of minorities interested in becoming teachers, a major challenge in public schools as population demographics change across the US.

It's an issue that is dear to Rinaldi's heart.

For years, Rinaldi's research has centered around the lack of understanding in the urban public school setting of students' minority and language-based challenges. She found that teachers did not have the training to recognize when a child should be referred to special education services or when the child needed English language learner services.

This problem is exacerbated, she contends, by the relatively low number of minority teachers in the public school setting, particularly in urban schools.

According to the most recent results of the US Department of Education's Schools and Staffing Survey 2011-12, about 82% of all public school teachers are white, 7% are African American and 8% are Hispanic/Latino. Meanwhile, the composition of students in classrooms K-12 nationwide is 54% white, 15% African American and 22% Hispanic.

"We have to prepare those teachers for that reality. There's a mismatch," Rinaldi says. "I found that teachers often feel they need permission [to assert themselves]. So I want to help build future teacher-leaders who support all children and their potential."

And, Rinaldi plans to make Lasell, and its Education graduates, pioneers in this area.

"I want Lasell to be known for preparing teachers with leadership skills to drive change," she tells Leaves. "It's what the field needs."

For more on Lasell's Education Department, view a video interview with Dr. Rinaldi in Leaves Extra.

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