Fresno State graduates own crop of doctorates

May 21, 2010 

Graduate students in California once had to attend a UC campus -- or an even more expensive private university -- to earn a doctoral degree.

A new law has changed all that. This year the first doctoral degrees awarded to students trained solely by a California State University campus are being handed out -- including the first in Fresno State's 99-year history.

Nineteen students -- mainly administrators in local schools and colleges -- will receive doctorates in educational leadership at today's commencement. The Ed.D. is aimed at working professionals and has a more practical focus than the research-oriented Ph.D.

Fresno State's three-year, 60-unit program helps prepare students to meet educational challenges such as new school reforms and an increasingly diverse population, officials say. It combines classroom instruction with field-based research and study.

Some courses send students into schools to conduct curriculum reviews or explore possible reforms.

Students "are not just learning the theory of the course," said Sharon Brown-Welty, the program's director. "They are getting a chance to do it."

The doctorates awarded today are a milestone for the 23-campus California State University system. In 2005, the Legislature and governor gave CSU the authority to independently grant the education doctorate.

For more than 40 years, UC was the only public system in California allowed to award doctorates. Some CSU campuses, including Fresno State, offered joint programs with UC.

But CSU officials said they needed independence to address a need for better-prepared school administrators and improve access to doctoral programs.

Larry Powell, Fresno County schools superintendent, praised Fresno State's emphasis on applied research. He also said the program can help keep the best and brightest at home.

"It's an opportunity to help stop the brain-drain from Fresno County," he said.

Powell noted that a doctorate can lead to better pay and improve a résumé.

"It may not make you a smarter person or an expert, but it gives you this document that says you are -- it gives you a level of credibility," he said.

Fresno State's program opened in 2007, as did programs at six other CSU campuses. More than 100 students are expected to graduate from those programs this summer.

Compared to the joint program with UC Davis, Fresno State's independent venture is quicker -- three years rather than four -- and accommodates more students, Brown-Welty said.

The university also is involved in the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate, a critical examination aimed at strengthening the degree that sometimes is dismissed as "Ph.D.-lite." Through the national project, campuses are exploring new approaches and participating in national discussions about the doctorate.

Twenty-three students were admitted into Fresno State's first class; 19 graduate today. Courses help develop new skills -- in research, for example -- and are tailored to address education reforms and other issues in the region.

Valley schools operate in some of the poorest and most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the state. In Fresno Unified, for example, nearly 30% of the students are English-learners, and more than 80% qualify for free or reduced-price meals. More than 70 languages are spoken by students and their families in Fresno Unified, the fourth-largest district in the state.

The first class of doctoral graduates is a working group -- often juggling weekend and weeknight classes with daytime jobs as principals, teachers and administrators, for example.

The class includes Jothany Blackwood, Fresno City College's dean for fine, performing and communication arts. Because of Fresno State's Ed.D. program, she said she now feels better equipped to address many educational issues. She also approved of the program's location and focus.

Blackwood said it is important to network "with other educational leaders in the area who understand the issues and challenges in our community and the diverse student population we serve."

Classmate Rob Darrow, principal of an online charter school, said during the doctoral program he looked at various aspects of charter and online schools. He developed the Clovis Online School -- which opened last year -- while in the doctoral program.

"Everything I learned and studied through my dissertation and throughout the doctoral courses is being applied almost daily with the students and families" in the school and throughout the Clovis Unified district, he said.

Shannon Lawrence, deputy principal at Clovis East High School, focused her dissertation on the academic resilience of high school foster youth. Her parents took in foster children.

Lawrence said she hopes to introduce measures to improve the academic chances of the district's foster children -- perhaps by linking them to mentors.

Today, 11 CSU campuses serve about 575 students seeking education doctorates. A state evaluation of the CSU program is due next year.

The 2005 legislation specifically authorizes education doctorates, but some hope that is just a start for CSU campuses. Powell, the Fresno County schools chief, said the popularity of the program could help spark expansion.

"The more we take advantage, the more likely we are to have other doctorate programs offered," he said.

The reporter can be reached at cfontana@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6312.

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