Alumna draws on Penn State experience to assist Florida school district

When Rebecca Burns was asked to help solve voluminous organizational problems in a Tampa, Florida, school district, she drew on the abundant, hands-on experience she accumulated from Penn State’s Professional Development School program.

The assistant professor at the University of South Florida was tasked with forming a collaboration between USF and Mort Elementary, a sprawling, cinder-block school surrounded by palm trees and shade trees but squarely lodged in an impoverished area plagued by alarmingly high crime rates and drug issues.

Not too long ago, just five children among an entire class of fifth-graders who started in the fall were actually still enrolled at the final spring bell. When Burns committed to examine Mort’s predicament in 2012, there were 16 classrooms that began and ended the year without a teacher. A substitute filled in or students were divided among other classes – every day.

Burns, who earned her bachelor’s (elementary education, 2002), master’s (curriculum and instruction, science education, 2008) and doctoral (curriculum and instruction, supervision, 2012) degrees from Penn State’s College of Education, said the school currently has a waiting list of teachers and a much smaller wish list of necessary improvements.

When Burns perused the situation and thought back to instruction at Penn State led by Professor Emeritus Jim Nolan, she said to the Mort Elementary principal: "Mr. Johnson, I can do this. We can figure out how to do this together.''

That was the genesis of a four-year professional development plan that spanned frustration and frowns and surged to satisfying achievement.

"When I was brought to USF, Mort Elementary was one of three brand new schools USF was bringing into their partnership,'' Burns said. "USF wanted to create this professional development school model. I think I was brought in primarily for my background and my experiences at Penn State and being raised in the PDS setting.

"It was just a huge development in building relationships with the principals and the teachers, mostly because the line of thinking was very typical of what I see in schools – thinking that the university was just going to come and drop off their student teachers and there’s really no kind of collaboration.

"That’s not how I was raised at Penn State,'' Burns said. "I really was raised to believe that together we can do this better and to value the expertise that school administrators and teachers have and to show them that we’re really there for the kids. When you have that mind-set, when that guides all of your actions, it creates a very different relationship.''

Burns grew up in the Reading, Pennsylvania, area and attended Wilson High School, a fairly large school district in Berks County. "And I always thought State College was a big district,'' she said. "You know, 10 elementary schools, and for Pennsylvania it is pretty big.

"Then I was working down here with Hillsborough County and they’re the eighth-largest school district in the country. At one point, there were 143 elementary schools; it’s like 15 State Colleges in terms of the superintendent and all the assistant superintendents and all of the structures that need to be in place when you’re managing such a large district."

Burns’ department chair at USF at the outset of the project, Diane Yendol-Hoppey, also had worked in a PDS, and a faculty member, Jenn Jacobs, was in the first PDS class at Penn State, Burns said. "Because we were all raised in a PDS program, we all had a similar vocabulary, we all had a shared understanding, we all had an image of the possible,'' she said.

The changeover at Mort started with basic emotion. "The whole goal is that the children who come in every day get a smile, that they feel loved or they feel cared for or they feel understood,'' Burns said. "And that teachers recognize the assets they’re bringing to school every day and they capitalize on those. 

"The children are very capable and it was just sort of starting to flip that mind-set.''

The school was turned into a "winter wonderland'' after a recent Thanksgiving, according to Burns. Community partners donate gifts with a goal that every child goes home with three toys around the holidays. "They do everything possible to make school a special place, a fun place, a place of learning but a place where children want to go every single day,'' Burns said.

The school district’s superintendent is looking to implement similar programs elsewhere in the district, and neighboring districts such as Pasco and Pinellas have inquired, according to Burns. 

Word also spread south. Burns received an offer to speak to administrators at the University of The Bahamas, which is starting a PDS program.

"The teacher-leader academy model that I’ve developed really draws on the PDS tenets and it works,'' Burns said. "And it’s also a tribute to the education I got at Penn State. Had I not been there, I would not be who I am today.

"Jim (Nolan) and Bernard Badiali (associate professor, curriculum and instruction) made an enormous difference in my life. I just think about things differently and I didn’t realize I was so different until I left there. We don’t do things to people, we do them with them, and that’s just a very different mind-set. PDS taught me that,'' she said.

USF’s elementary programs have earned the PDS Exemplary Achievement award as well as an Association of Teacher Educators Distinguished Program in Teacher Education honor and a Spirit of Partnership award.

'PDS gives me hope,'' Burns said. "Penn State’s PDS is really a model for what high-quality school/university partnerships should be across the country. And if others can really actualize the shared norms and the ideas and fact that kids come first and that really together we can make a difference, I truly believe in my heart that that’s how we can renew education.

"I couldn’t be happier with my preparation at Penn State. It really transformed me; it’s a transformative place. I really hope that Penn State recognizes the gem that they have as they continue to develop high-quality teachers.''

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Last Updated May 16, 2017