Boy staring

Social Studies

Stetson University’s new graduate program aims to break down barriers that at-risk students face in and out of the classroom.

While many children dream about toys or vacations, Sydney dreams of a day when she no longer has to worry if her family will have food to eat and a safe place to sleep at night. Sydney, a fifth-grader, and her family including two younger siblings have been homeless for months.

More than 16 million children in the United States live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level and family homelessness is the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. Rajni Shankar-Brown, Ph.D., an associate professor and director of graduate programs in the Department of Education at Stetson University, works closely with Sydney’s family and many other families living in deep poverty.

“When we talk about students who are marginalized or at-risk because of systemic inequities,” says Shankar-Brown, “we refer to a multitude of potential variables, such as poverty, race, special needs, including learning disabilities and more.”

Rajni Shankar Brown, Ph.D.

To help educators better understand and serve this marginalized segment, Stetson is developing Educating for Social Justice, a new graduate program that will serve as a master’s degree in elementary education built around principles of social justice. The program will support educators in meeting the academic and social-emotional needs of all students, including students considerably at-risk, such as Sydney and her siblings. Shankar-Brown and Kathy Piechura-Couture, Ph.D., are co-coordinators of the program.

“At Stetson, the Education Department conducted alumni surveys asking what teachers are looking for in the education experience and what they need help with,” says Shankar-Brown. “The data strongly showed that they need help in the areas of reaching diverse learners and support in working with children in poverty, specials needs and ESOL [English for Speakers of Other Languages]. We are committed to advocating for marginalized children and improving education for all.”

In response to the high demand for this kind of support, Educating for Social Justice will explore language diversity and the myriad barriers ESOLs face inside and outside the classroom. It will cover the range of diverse factors that affect a child’s life and bring that back into curriculum and instruction, with the larger goal of reverting some of the social inequities that are seen throughout the country.

“We have very passionate faculty members who are designing the courses,” said Shankar-Brown. “They’ll be teaching the courses, too. Our faculty members are experts in their own right, in different areas, and we enjoy collaborating — all of which is going to make this new graduate program more powerful.”

The first phase of the year-long program will launch in summer 2015 and continue the following summer. It is aimed at those who are currently in the field of education, from teachers and social workers to counselors and administrators, and also will provide advanced professional development for leaders of nonprofit organizations serving children and youth. Overall, it can include anyone who is seeking a deeper understanding of social justice and education.

“It’s not just about teaching strong, solid educational practices, but doing it from a reference and frame of mind within the larger context of social justice,” she says. “A significant part of this program is also going to address advocacy, which will support educators and social workers in becoming competent educational leaders and advocates. To accomplish this, we’re going to have a variety of interdisciplinary courses and applied learning projects taught in a hybrid/blended model.”

During the second summer, there will be a capstone experience for the participants.

“Before the candidates graduate, they will take part in a very innovative feature of the program,” saMan using his wheelchairys Shankar-Brown. “They’ll be given two options: one is a local experience that will allow them to work hands-on with low-income students, which will culminate in a collaboration with the Athens Theater to perform in a drama production. The other is an international experience to study abroad in India while working with some of the impoverished communities overseas. This will involve taking global perspectives and bringing them right back to our local communities.

“Stetson is committed to fostering intellectual development, personal growth and global citizenship, and I think those three core values have been bridged in Educating for Social Justice,” adds Shankar-Brown. “There is potential to make a significant impact in communities both near and far. My hope is that the program will create sustainable social change and positively impact the lives of children, as well as educators and families.”