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New Dean Wants Darden College of Education to Be Responsive to Issues and Concerns in the Real World

By the turn of the century, Linda Irwin-DeVitis had taught 16 years in middle schools and high schools, and had devoted another 14 years to college teaching and administration.

At the secondary level, she had worked with students from rural, working-class communities, as well as those who grew up in urban and suburban areas, putting into practice what she learned in graduate school about socio-cultural and socio-linguistic theories. Years later, as a professor, she had shared the latest theories with teacher candidates. She was making a difference.

But Irwin-DeVitis was not prepared for what she witnessed during successive summer visits to the Mississippi Delta in 2000 and 2001, when she led groups of college students on a mission to establish a literacy program for children ages 6-7. In Moorhead, Miss., she came face-to-face with extreme poverty, racism and a pattern of segregation between blacks and whites that still persisted decades after the civil rights movement.

For Old Dominion University's new education dean, it was an experience that, she would say later, challenged her thinking in substantive ways. Still vivid in her memory is the boy who sat backwards on his chair holding onto, and peering out through, the spindles, while talking inappropriately to his teachers. She later learned that his father was in jail and that the youngster was engaging in role-playing, which included talking like his father - the man he had seen engaged in violent acts against his mother before being sent off to serve time.

Then there was the bright 13-year-old boy who had a speech impediment, but who had been misdiagnosed - because no speech therapist was available for these kids - and put in special education classes all those years.

"My understandings of critical theory, constructivist pedagogy and my own Southern roots were not robust enough to deal with the realities of the lives of these children, their families and teachers," Irwin-DeVitis said.

It was a discovery that initially depressed her, but eventually reinvigorated her.

"My epiphany was that America doesn't care about all kids, it only cares about some kids," she said. "It was easy to be in higher education for all those years and sort of talk about multicultural issues and the problems and so on, but be insulated from them. I never want to be insulated again.

"The experience had a profound impact on all of us who were there. Racial discrimination was unbelievable in the community. When you look at the United States, we are resegregating not only by race, but also by socio-economic class, maybe to a greater degree by socio-economic class than even before integration. So it's very scary to me."

Irwin-DeVitis said she became recommitted to being an advocate for quality education for all - and to helping "provoke the conversation."

It's a conversation she plans to start with her new colleagues in ODU's education college.

In her letter of application for the deanship, she wrote: "I am particularly drawn to Old Dominion because of its commitment to high standards, interdisciplinary research, collaboration and its outstanding reputation. The most important question facing American public education is providing educational opportunity and equity for young people who come from diverse backgrounds and those whose schools are not providing a climate and expectation of success.

"While schools and teachers are only part of the answer, educational researchers and practitioners must be active and vocal in doing the research and shaping policies designed to support all learners."

Irwin-DeVitis believes that education colleges must bring to bear the power of their teaching, research and service upon the challenges that exist in the K-20 classrooms and in our health and recreation centers, human services and mental health work. She says that they can't afford to be on the sidelines when policy debates are taking place extramurally about achievement gaps, demographic changes, technological advances, physical health and wellness, and other issues that are sure to impact not only our education system, but also every aspect of community life and well-being.

"While I understand that education is not a panacea, I really do think that if we don't make it the priority that it needs to be in our communities and in our country, the future does not bode well," she said. "So I'm in it because I want to be an advocate, and being dean gives me a platform to do that advocacy."

After arriving on campus June 25, Irwin-DeVitis embarked on a "listening tour," meeting her faculty and staff, and finding out about their dreams, passions and concerns. She'll use what she learns to shape her leadership role. In the meantime, she has her own ideas and goals for making the Darden College an even stronger school and enhancing its growing reputation.

"I'm exploring the idea of a focus that might stretch across the disciplines in the colleges," she said. "Our goal is to be among the top 50 colleges of education in the country - we're 72nd now in the U.S. News & World Report rankings - so I want to explore the kinds of synergies that will move us up."

Above all, Irwin-DeVitis wants the college to be responsive.

"This college is a collection of applied disciplines, and if we're not relevant to the questions that are being asked in the real world, then I don't know why we exist. So my vision is for ODU's Darden College of Education to be a place where folks in various fields come for answers, for suggestions, for professional development - for us to be seen as relevant to the issues and concerns that they face."

Irwin-DeVitis said she was attracted to the Darden College because of its outstanding faculty and programs, including its doctoral offerings and research, and she is looking forward to helping direct a talented group of faculty and students.

As dean, she said her challenges will include "the usual suspects" found at public institutions, such as finding ways to deal with strained budgets. "Another," she added, "is making time for faculty to be able to pursue the great research and grant work they're doing and still maintain our reputation as a high-touch college where students and faculty interact. I think that's the challenge - trying to find that balance, especially as we continue to grow enrollments."

Having spent more than 40 years in the education field, Irwin-DeVitis brings an impressive background to her new role. Before coming to ODU to succeed William Graves, she served as dean of the Lounsbury School of Education at Georgia College & State University (GCSU) since 2003. During her tenure there, the GCSU School of Education received the 2008 Wisniewski Award from the Society of Professors of Education and was a finalist for the 2009 National Christa McAuliffe Excellence in Teaching Award.

She previously served as associate dean for programs at the University of Louisville College of Education and Human Development and held faculty positions at SUNY Binghamton and Oneonta and the University of Tennessee. She spent 10 years as a middle and high school teacher in rural school districts in Florida and Louisiana.

Irwin-DeVitis is the co-author of two books, "50 Graphic Organizers for K-8 Classrooms: Templates and Strategies" and "Graphic Organizers: Strategy for Authentic Learning," and co-editor of the book series "Adolescent Cultures, School and Society." Additionally, she is co-editor of "The Adolescent Education: A Reader," which was published in April. She has written numerous articles for a variety of referred publications, among them the English Journal, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Journal of Educational Studies, Middle School Journal and Reading Research and Instruction.

She has served as the principal or co-principal investigator on a number of research grants, including a $1.24 million U.S. Department of Education grant for a teacher recruitment and retention transition to teaching project and a $2.1 million DOE service grant with the Binghamton City School District to increase preparation for and interest in post-secondary education.

Irwin-DeVitis holds a bachelor's degree in secondary education and a doctorate in education from the University of Tennessee, and received a master's in curriculum and instruction from the University of New Orleans.

This article was posted on: September 10, 2010

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