University of South Florida

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USF Polk Reading Academy celebrates first cohort of graduates from school-university partnership program

Group photo of USF Polk Reading Academy

At a recent Polk County School Board Meeting, 13 teachers were celebrated for earning their master’s degrees in reading education from USF. | Photo provided by Polk County Public Schools.

A partnership between the University of South Florida (USF) College of Education and Polk County Public Schools reached a new milestone as the district celebrated its first cohort of teachers who have earned a master’s degree in reading education from USF.

The teachers were supported in this work through the USF Polk Reading Academy, a collaborative partnership between the school district and USF that provides tuition assistance and support to teachers seeking to further their education and participate in professional development opportunities.

Launched in 2019, the Academy provides educators with opportunities to advance their knowledge in the areas of literacy and reading education by offering customized class sessions with USF faculty and the flexibility to complete their studies through synchronous online sessions. 

Jenifer Jasinski Schneider, PhD, a professor in USF’s Literacy Studies Program and coordinator of the Master's in Reading Education Program, said the initiative is centered on preparing teachers with research-informed practices that will help them support literacy teaching and learning across the district and across grade levels.

“The impact of someone with a master’s in reading (education) is significant,” Dr. Schneider said. “If you learn ways of thinking, ways of investigating and if you understand how to approach the students in front of you with research in mind, you will be a more effective teacher and one that advocates for all students.”

The first cohort of program graduates includes 13 teachers who received certificates of completion from Polk County Public Schools this week. They received their master’s degrees from USF in August and will continue serving in their schools as classroom educators and school leaders.

For Morgan LeVeille Brownlee, an English teacher at Lakeland Senior High School, being selected for the program enabled her to network and connect with her peers in ways she hadn’t previously considered.

“The most influential aspect for me was the relationships that were built,” LeVeille Brownlee said. “Being a part of a cohort versus just getting a master’s degree gave us a community of teachers from various backgrounds and with different experiences to build from. I was working with teachers who had been teaching for 30 years, so it was almost like a mentorship.”

Learning how to persevere throughout the program was a major lesson for Cynthia Kuhlman, a gifted student teacher at Highland Elementary School. While eager to earn her master’s degree from USF, Kuhlman said she made some realizations as she stepped into the role of a student.

“I’ve always fostered a sense of ‘we celebrate failure because we learn more from mistakes than from successes’ in my classroom, but I was not embracing that as a student at USF,” Kuhlman said. “So, one of the biggest experiences is that the program helped me relate to the struggles my students have.”

Tracy Butcher, an educator who teaches 10th-grade reading at Lake Gibson High School, said she quickly applied after receiving an email about the program.

Inspired to continue her studies after serving for more than 20 years in the classroom, Butcher says she’s happy she was able to overcome the obstacles that came her way, especially at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was an amazing experience for me,” Butcher said. “USF went above and beyond. Every single professor was outstanding. I can’t believe I did this work and was still able to deliver in the middle of everything that’s happened.”

When asked about her future goals, Butcher said she feels motivated to continue her studies and pursue a doctoral degree at USF.

“From the time I was younger, I’ve always wanted to teach teachers how to be teachers,” Butcher said. “So, I think once my daughters graduate (one from high school and one from USF), I’m going back to study culturally relevant teaching methods.”

USF Literacy Faculty with Polk County Schools' Cheryl Joe

USF Literacy Studies faculty with Polk County Public Schools Senior Director of Professional Development, Cheryl Joe. Pictured from left to right: Patriann Smith, Lindsay Persohn, Cheryl Joe, Margaret Krause, and Jenifer Jasinski Schneider.

While the plans for continuing the Academy are still in the works, Cheryl Joe, Senior Director of Professional Development for Polk County Public Schools, said USF and the school district are actively engaged in conversations about the program’s future and hope to invite more teachers to participate in the program.

Having seen the initiative’s impact firsthand has given Joe confidence that more of the district’s teachers would benefit from participating in the Academy.

“Our teachers are overworked and underpaid, and they may never get a graduate degree without the opportunities that were put in place by our district,” Joe said. “That is why we’re investing in teachers to become coaches, role models and leaders of professional learning within their schools—so it will directly impact the achievement of students.”

USF's Master of Arts in Reading Education is a distinctive online program designed to prepare expert literacy educators and effective literacy leaders. Through interactive and engaging online technologies, students expand their knowledge of global literacies, explore disciplinary literacy practices, develop critical literacies and advance their digital and media literacy competencies.

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About the USF College of Education:

As the home for more than 2,200 students and 130 faculty members across three campuses, the University of South Florida College of Education offers state-of-the-art teacher training and collegial graduate studies designed to empower educational leaders. Our college is nationally accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), and our educator preparation programs are fully approved by the Florida Department of Education.