Professional position precedes doctoral degree for graduate student

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It's always a good day when payday occurs well before graduation day.

Heather Bennett has spent many a long day at Penn State while earning an undergraduate degree in political science and subsequently completing her juris doctorate at Penn State Law. Next up was the pursuit of a doctorate in educational leadership from the College of Education, and that came to fruition on Dec. 16 at the University's fall commencement.

But because Bennett was heavily involved in various groups and organizations — particularly the Pennsylvania Educational Equity Project (PEEP) — she was offered a job by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) and has been working since August as its director of equity.

Among other items, PSBA, based in Mechanicsburg in Cumberland County, promotes greater activity and higher efficiency on the part of Pennsylvania's 500 school boards to secure the best results in the progressive advancement, control and conduct of public schools, and also offers assistance and advice to school boards and their collective members on school matters affecting them.

"I would not be in the position if it were not for my role as president of PEEP," Bennett said. "And, I do not believe that I would be effective if it were not for my experiences as a teacher, as a lawyer and a researcher.

"These experiences helped to develop my knowledge of how districts work and what rules govern districts; the diverse issues that different districts deal with to fully educate their students; and historical and present discriminatory educational practices that continue to hold back opportunities of minority and marginalized populations. But most importantly, these experiences have helped me to imagine what education could and should look like in Pennsylvania."

Bennett has the flexibility to mold the job into how she sees fit.

"I have the unique opportunity to develop this position from scratch," she said. "Currently, we are creating an equity statement for PSBA, and enacting a model equity policy to help school boards promote equity in their school districts.

"I am also working with school leaders in rural, suburban and urban districts who are committed to pushing equity initiatives forward in the Commonwealth to form an equity task force. I am addressing specific equity issues by putting out whitepapers, best practice case studies, webinars and, eventually, educational workshops, resource guides and tool kits."

Statewide, school-based equity is the overriding goal.

"My focus is working primarily with school board members and district leaders to help them in their pursuit of equity in the very framework of school decisions," Bennett said. "School board directors are policymakers, they are elected officials who shape the educational frameworks of their school districts. Every day I go to work humbled by the challenge and the opportunity to work exclusively with school board members, superintendents and school leaders on this movement. Equity is a movement forward to ensure all students will have the opportunity to reach their highest potential."

Bennett explained that equity is the just and fair distribution of resources based upon students’ needs, and that equitable resources include funding, programs, policies, initiatives and supports that target each students’ unique background and school context.

"Equity also requires the remedy of resource disparities that have contributed to the differing academic, social and economic outcomes of our students based on race, socio-economic status, disability, language ability and gender," she said.

Bennett's experience with equity issues began during her role as president of PEEP. She and other graduate students were finalizing an edited volume on various research they conducted on educational equity issues in Pennsylvania’s school districts.

"To garner interest in the volume my co-editor (Raphael Alvarado) and I started calling education organizations throughout Pennsylvania to let them know about our organization and edited volume, and to ask if they would promote the edited volume to their various constituents," Bennett said.

"The Pennsylvania School Boards Association immediately got back to me and indicated that they were extremely interested in pushing equity-based research within the association. The executive director, Nathan Maines, invited me to come to the office and discuss our work. That meeting ended up leading to a long-lasting relationship with PSBA and the development of the director of equity services position."

One for which she is grateful.

"I could not have asked for a better opportunity right out of my graduate school program," Bennett said. "This experience has taught me that if you are simply working your passion then the perfect opportunity will come around."

But, she acknowledged, not without help.

"The professors, staff and students served as my greatest cheerleaders; they believed in me even when I struggled to believe in myself," Bennett said. "PEEP was probably the best thing I did in my entire graduate program. I worked with students and faculty who were committed to the educational advancement of students in the Commonwealth, specifically students who have been historically and presently marginalized by discriminatory practices within our education system.

"It was in PEEP that I found my voice as a researcher."

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Last Updated January 17, 2018