Sowing Seeds of Knowledge 

Forget everything you thought you knew about school. UM educators are cultivating fresh approaches to learning while nurturing healthier, happier communities from the ground up.

Sowing Seeds of KnowledgeAt an after-school refuge in Miami’s West Coconut Grove, a drumbeat beckons youngsters to join hands around a potted plant. Linked to each other and their shared heritage, the children name people who have influenced their lives—Mom, Dad, Auntie, Grandma, historical heroes, superstar athletes. Then they water the green shoot.

This weekly ceremony, based on an African ritual, is part of a School of Education outreach project in which student mentors from the University of Miami use African culture and history to offer the children of this historic black community new ways to learn self-awareness, leadership, and respect for their heritage.

“We get them talking about what it means to be a member of the community,” says UM doctoral student Billie Schwartz, the project’s coordinator.

“I think it’s awesome,” says fourth-grader Abigail Francisque. “I like that we get to express our feelings, that I get to tell them about my day.”

Dean Isaac Prilleltensky and EtionyAldarondo

Dean Isaac Prilleltensky, right, consults Etiony Aldarondo, director of UM’s new Dunspaugh-Dalton Foundation Community and Educational Well-Being Research Center.

Advocating healthy, connected communities is also key to the school’s 30 or so other outreach and research-based projects in South Florida. To Dean Isaac Prilleltensky, a noted author and psychologist who led Vanderbilt University’s doctoral program in Community Research and Action, it comes down to community well-being—and social justice. “There cannot be health and wellness if we don’t promote a fair and just society,” Prilleltensky says. “Schools have to be focused on social justice. For all children to come to school prepared is social justice.”

Since Prilleltensky’s 2006 arrival, the 81-year-old school has seamlessly woven his guiding motto—Strengths, Prevention, Empowerment, and Community Change (SPEC)—into the academic fabric of its three departments: Teaching and Learning, Educational and Psychological Studies, and Exercise and Sport Sciences.

More than a philosophy, SPEC is also a three-year research project in which UM researchers and graduate students consult with local human service agencies to help them advance from a crisis management approach to a culture of prevention. “The traditional ways of helping people are very reactive,” says Prilleltensky, SPEC principal investigator. “Many approaches concentrate on changing the individual without changing the environment, and that’s a very myopic view.”

Prilleltensky stresses the need to build on strengths instead of stereotypes, give people voice and choice in their lives, and address problematic community conditions.

Changing the Environment
A major new force in these efforts is the school’s Dunspaugh-Dalton Foundation Community and Educational Well-Being Research Center. Launched last year, it fosters University-community collaborations and encourages innovative education and training programs. Its initiatives are necessarily as diverse as the multiethnic region it serves.

“There have always been academics who understand that their task goes beyond their classrooms and laboratories,” says center director Etiony Aldarondo, an associate professor in the Department of Educational and Psychological Studies and a national leader on domestic violence research. “But we’re intentionally making our teaching experiences, our research endeavors, and the training of our students more relevant to the needs of our community to make our communities work better for everyone.”

One of several University-community collaborations Aldarondo oversees is the Immigrant Children Affirmative Network (ICAN), which works with undocumented immigrant minors, many of whom are in South Florida unaccompanied immigrant children detention centers. The young people take part in art, music, poetry, and dance sessions designed to build their self-image. They’re asked to trace their journey to this country on a map and write their own stories, answering questions like, “Who am I?” “Where did I come from?” “Where am I going?”

“We want to promote a sense of continuity and hope in their lives. It’s a life-defining process,” explains Aldarondo, a native of Puerto Rico. “When you have the energy and dynamism generated by immigration and the diversity and youth of this city, you have bands of optimism and hope, as well as tensions and difficulties.”

Guerda Nicolas and Billie Schwartz

Educational and Psychological Studies Chair Guerda Nicolas, standing, meets with Ph.D. candidate Billie Schwartz.

Guerda Nicolas, chair of educational and psychological studies, founded the Kulula Project in Coconut Grove after arriving at UM in 2008, attracted by the School of Education’s growing commitment to community-oriented scholarship. The after-school mentoring initiative for children ages 6 to 13 is named after the Swahili word for “excel.”

“Data show that people who are grounded in terms of their cultural identity do better in responding to racial discrimination,” explains Nicolas, an associate professor and native of Haiti who previously founded a similar mentoring program while on the faculty at Boston College. “The overall mission is about enhancing not only the educational achievement of kids but also the well-being of the communities where they live.”

For their required community service proposal, the girls and boys in the program have suggested everything from planting trees and implementing better lighting to measures that could reduce prostitution and drug activity in their neighborhoods.

“They’re building a sense of ownership,” says counseling psychology Ph.D. candidate Schwartz. This spring, Kulula Project participants will visit UM to present their ideas to a group of professors who will guide them in designing strategies for action.

“These kids often live and go to school in an environment where people label them,” says Nicolas. “They just need a good sense of who they are.”

Classroom of the Future
The lives of Miami’s predominantly black and Hispanic schoolchildren illustrate the socioeconomic hurdles increasingly facing urban school systems across the nation. More than 50,000 of Miami-Dade Public Schools’ 345,150 students are enrolled in ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes. Some 72 percent of the students in elementary schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Fewer than 69 percent of the county’s high school students graduate on time.

“Miami is the United States of the future,” says the school’s associate dean, Marilyn Neff, a former deputy superintendent who worked in the Miami-Dade school system for 30 years before joining UM 12 years ago. “The School of Education’s job is to envision what the future will look like and do what we can to prepare students and communities to thrive in this new world. The biggest change I’ve seen here is that now this single mission unifies all our departments.”

Retired librarian Barbara Mautner, B.Ed. ’61, M.Ed. ’65, recently boosted that mission with a $2.36 million donation that established the school’s first endowed chair and named Prilleltensky the Erwin and Barbara Mautner Chair in Community Well-Being.

“Isaac Prilleltensky is one of the best pieces of news to come to this community in the last several years,” says Dave Lawrence, the retired Miami Herald publisher and president of the Miami-based Early Childhood Initiative Foundation. “I’ve seldom seen people come and publicly get themselves so embedded so quickly in this community.”

As the School of Education raises its local profile, its national reputation is soaring too. During Prilleltensky’s tenure the school has risen 28 spots to No. 41 in U.S.News & World Report rankings, and the national Academic Analytics index has listed four of its graduate programs among the top five in the United States.

But these gains are more than academic for Argentina-born Prilleltensky, who was orphaned at age 8 when his parents died in a car accident. An aunt adopted him and his two siblings. At age 16, seeing politically active family members and friends begin to disappear during Argentina’s so-called Dirty War, Prilleltensky fled to Israel alone, eventually becoming a school psychologist. Soon, though, he grew frustrated with trying to solve psychosocial issues one troubled student at a time. He went on to devote his career to convincing others that a healthy environment is crucial to forming healthy, productive students.

Fluent in three languages, Prilleltensky has written seven books and more than 100 articles and chapters on the subject. As he told UM’s graduate school commencement audience last May: “Sometimes it’s not a matter of beating the odds but changing the odds.”

With more than $8 million in funded projects in areas such as special education, math and science education, positive youth development, and disease prevention, plus new courses of study in Human and Social Development and Community and Social Change, the School of Education is doing just that.

“Look at the people who thrive,” Prilleltensky says. “What do they have in common? Supportive parents, community, schools. This is a research-based approach. What does it take to grow healthier, happier citizens? It’s so much more than just teaching teachers.”

Jodi Mailander Farrell is a Miami-based journalist.


In addition to SPEC, the Kulula Project, and ICAN, these are a few other leading-edge School of Education initiatives:

P-SELL: With National Science Foundation grant support, education professors Okhee Lee, Walter Secada, and Randall Penfield developed this hands-on science learning method that also aids development of English language and mathematics skills. The results: dramatic test score improvements in math, writing, and science among English language learners in Miami elementary schools; curriculum materials for the public; and a U.S. Department of Education grant to run the study at additional sites.

THINK (Translational Health in Nutrition and Kinesiology): The Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences engages Miami-Dade teens in hands-on health-enhancing exercise and nutrition, literacy, career development, and team-building activities.

Teach For America: This Education and Social Change Master of Science degree is designed to help TFA corps members and alumni build teaching and education leadership skills.

Bilingual Counselors: This Department of Educational and Psychological Studies program trains master’s level bilingual counselors to assist Spanish-speaking children, adults, and families.

Support Network of Novice Teachers: In response to data showing that about half of new teachers quit in their first five years, this Department of Teaching and Learning-founded network addresses key stressors, reporting a 98 percent retention rate among participants.

Jack and Harriet Rosenfeld Foundation Program in Jewish Education: This new initiative enhances academic programming and services to South Florida Jewish day school teachers. It includes a Jewish education minor in the Department of Teaching and Learning.