By Chip Chandler

A new cadre of educational leaders will celebrate the earning of the highest degrees in their field Dec. 11 as West Texas A&M University’s first cohort of students in its newest doctoral field graduate.

The first 18 students in WT’s doctoral program in educational leadership will take part in the 10 a.m. Dec. 11 ceremony.

The fully online Ed.D. degree program was launched in 2018, preparing educational leaders for rural schools and those in higher education and educational organizations.

The inaugural cohort includes administrators, instructors and coaches from Amarillo, Pampa, Dalhart, Canyon, Lubbock, Denver City, Levelland, Dimmitt, Lefors and Guymon, Okla., as well as an administrator in Jacksonville, Fla.

Although the program focuses on rural school leadership, both tracks equip educational leaders with a wide variety of tools to lead in any educational organization, of any size, and in any location, said Dr. Eddie Henderson, dean of WT’s College of Education and Social Sciences.

“This first cohort of Ed.D. candidates significantly advances the University’s vision of attaining recognition as a regional research institution while maintaining the University’s historic tradition of excellence in teaching and service to the region,” Henderson said. “Our rural-focused doctoral program empowers professionals to positively impact the future of rural communities by promoting excellence through research-based exploration of current problems and the development of research-based solutions.”

School districts serving fewer than 1,000 students comprise more than 50 percent of the districts in Texas, creating the need for rural school leaders. This need for rural school leaders is similar in many states across the country.

Ultimately, said WT President Walter V. Wendler, the new Ed.D. program furthers WT’s mission of “offering intellectually challenging, critically reflective and regionally responsive academic programs,” as laid out in the long-range plan WT 125: From the Panhandle to the World.

That plan is fueled by the historic, $125 million One West comprehensive fundraising campaign.

Students were required to take 60 hours of courses in an interdisciplinary curriculum that emphasized action research, high-impact experiential residency and an endowed scholars program.

“We believe this curriculum encourages our doctoral candidates to be grounded in their communities and to focus on their decision-making skills,” said Dr. Gary Bigham, director of the Ed.D. program, director of superintendent certification and professor of educational leadership. “We want to develop leaders who are responsive to the various cultural, sociopolitical, economic, and emergency management contexts of rural communities and who are equipped to meet the specific challenges in those rural settings.”

Being part of the inaugural cohort was “an honor,” said Linda Castañeda Aranda, an educational diagnostician for Amarillo Independent School District.

“Our professors have poured their hearts and souls not only into the program but into the (doctoral) candidates,” Aranda said. “It has not been an easy ride. It’s very rigorous and demanding. But it has given us hope for bigger and better things to come.”

Rather than the traditional dissertation, scholarly research throughout the three-year program results in an extensive literature review and two articles that are publication-ready.

Students examined such topics as academic success in schools of poverty, rural principals’ ethical decision-making in student-athlete discipline, leadership practices to engage Latino parents, trust factors between principals and teachers, educational inequality and Covid-19, and more.

The rigor of the program, and its requisite time commitment on top of other professional obligations, made it both challenging and rewarding, said Mike Dominguez, superintendent of schools at Stratford Independent School District.

“This program has honed my craft. Education impacts everybody. … It’s important for me to be a lifelong learner, and I have to set the tone for my community,” Dominguez said. “When I was a student, there weren’t many people who looked like me at all. There weren’t many people who looked like me in the education profession.”

The first Ed.D. cohort also includes, in addition to Aranda and Dominguez:

Gabriela Arriazola-Rivera, Amarillo Independent School District assistant principal;
Amy Clifton, WT College of Education and Social Sciences data specialist;
Bethany Davis, Pampa Independent School District assistant principal;
Matthew K. Driver, Canyon Independent School District teacher;
Jerry S. Findley, South Plains College dean of health sciences;
Misty Heiskell, Dalhart Independent School District principal;
Tiffany Longoria, Denver City Independent School District assistant principal;
Felix Isaac Martinez, Levelland Independent School District middle school teacher and coach;
Byron May, Pampa Independent School District principal;
Teresa Mora, former director of Hispanic Student Services and Upward Bound at Oklahoma Panhandle State University;
Angelica Garcia Okamoto, Dimmitt Independent School District director of student services;
Kelley Porter, Lefors Independent School District superintendent;
Liz Marie Rascón-Alaniz, Wesley Community Center executive director;
Justin Richardson, chief learning officer of lead4ward in Canyon;
Eric Sosa, WT Business Office post-award manager of sponsored research; and
Zeina Spaulding, executive director of professional development for the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla.

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