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From Education Intern to Avid Holmes Program Advocate

Donna Saco and two Holmes doctoral studentsAACTE’s Jerrica Thurman first met Donna Sacco in 2015. Sacco was one of three doctoral students from George Mason University (GMU) who worked as an AACTE education intern, assisting in advocating for high-quality preparation programs and with its marketing communications. Thurman was pleasantly surprised when she saw Sacco at AACTE’s 2019 Washington Week with her two Holmes doctoral students from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC). It was during her AACTE internship that Sacco learned about the Holmes Program and determined to make a personal contribution to help diversify the teacher workforce by becoming a Holmes advocate. The following summary highlights an interview Thurman had with Sacco about her journey from an intern to a change agent in education. 

What piqued your interest in the issues of teacher diversity as a doctoral student at George Mason University and student intern at AACTE?

Before my doctoral program, I was a special educator with a master’s degree in bilingual special education. For my entire career, my focus has been on culturally and linguistically responsive instructional practices. Part of my drive came from the stories my father told me about the obstacles he experienced in his childhood as the son of Italian immigrants. He was a brilliant man but never went to college. He had one advocate who helped mentor him in appreciating the arts but had no teachers who were advocates, role models, or who understood his background. Once I began researching teacher education, I was surprised to learn that the teaching force is composed of roughly 80% white female teachers. How had I missed that obvious point? I am a white female who was teaching mostly boys of color. 

How did you start the Holmes Program at GMU?

I was lucky enough to be an intern when the Annual Meeting took place and saw the Holmes Program  in action, witnessing the impact of the mentoring and networking opportunities for students from historically underrepresented groups. Throughout my life, I have had the good fortune to have strong mentors on my side who were instrumental in my development as an educator, researcher, and scholar. Everyone needs this support. I soon learned there had once been a Holmes Program at GMU that was no longer active. I am not shy and especially not when it comes to advocating for others. I made a case for the program and received the green light to present the idea to the director of the doctoral program who, along with the dean, was supportive. I helped to initiate the original meetings with AACTE and the new faculty advisor. One of my worries was that the Holmes Program would not continue after I graduated from my doctoral program at GMU. I was happy to learn from GMU’s new director of the doctoral program that its Holmes Program is still going strong. In fact, their first Scholar has completed three years in the Holmes Program and they are considering expanding to include two scholars.

Why do you think it is important for deans and university administrators to support programs like the Holmes Scholars?

 The Scholars receive exposure to the best in the field of teacher education, mentoring, networking, and collegial bonding. Honestly, all doctoral students need these things and sometimes they do not have the opportunities in other associations. What dean would not want to see students have access to opportunities? The cost to fund one or two Scholars is relatively low when you consider some of the other costs of running a college program. I once pointed out that some receptions cost more than it would cost to fund one Scholar, and a lot of that food goes uneaten.

How did you start the Holmes Program at UNCC?

Again, as soon as I realized that we did not have a Holmes Program at UNCC, I did not think twice about making an appointment with the dean and associate deans to advocate for the program. UNCC is designated as an urban research institute and the vision of its Cato College of Education is “to be a national leader in educational equity, excellence, and engagement.” Holmes aligned well with our mission. I proposed getting it started and then mentoring the next faculty advisor after the program was up and running. The dean approved one scholar and two advisors, but when our review panel was trying to decide on a scholar, we were stuck. There were two finalists who we wanted to participate in the program. I asked the dean if we could fund two scholars and she agreed. It was not difficult for her to see that the program is a perfect fit for our college and she has been very generous in her support. My dream is to one day have all four levels of Holmes participants at our university: high school, undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral levels. I am also looking for a benefactor to bestow a large fund upon the college to keep the program self-sufficient.

What has been the impact of you initiating Holmes Program and/or other teacher diversity programs at GMU and UNCC?

Perhaps that remains to be seen. I have initiated one small piece of equity work at these universities. It is barely a drop in the bucket compared to what my colleagues are doing. One of the cool things about bringing our two Holmes Scholars to the Annual Meeting was when they went to the Holmes Scholars’ poster sessions and saw their own professors were being cited repeatedly. That made them proud and appreciate the quality of education they are receiving at UNCC.

Donna Sacco with colleagues and friendsHow would you describe your experience of bringing your UNCC Holmes Program to AACTE’s 2019 Washington Week?

AACTE’s Washington Week was amazing! I have been politically active since I was 12-years old and have a great deal of experience on Capitol Hill. I underestimated the impact of the experience for someone new to it. I was so proud of our two Scholars. They did a tremendous amount of research on policy related to education and the voting records of our representatives in the House and Senate. They took the pre-visit training that AACTE’s Deborah Koolbeck provided very seriously, and rocked those meetings on the Hill! They offered their services as boots on the ground in K-12 schools and in higher education. No one would ever have known that this was their first foray into advocacy work on the Hill.

What advice would you give to others who may want to start Holmes Program at their college of education?

Just do it! Start small and see the results. You will soon want to expand. These are difficult times for education from K-12 to higher education. Professionals are underpaid, overworked, and underappreciated. By the fall of 2020, minorities, including students who are English learners, will make up 54% of the population of students in public elementary and secondary schools (Projections of Education Statistics to 2022, 2014).  Isn’t it time that students were able to see teachers like themselves as role models? Isn’t it time that the profession be one that is attractive to diverse populations in prestige and pay? The Holmes Program is working to ensure that becomes a reality but there is still work to be done. This next generation of educators coming through the Holmes Program may be just the change agents we need.

Donna Sacco is currently a clinical assistant professor in the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s Cato College of Education. While pursuing her Ph.D., she was one of six full-time doctoral students in special education on a USDOE/OSEP leadership grant at GMU (Project ASCEND). She was also a graduate research assistant for a Stepping Up Technology Implementation Grant project called Project WeGotIT! The project promotes effective teacher use of technology to support individuals with high-incidence disabilities who struggle with written expression. She has served on the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) Board of Directors and as president of the DC CEC.


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Jerrica Thurman

Director of Marketing & Communications, AACTE

Donna Sacco

George Mason University - AACTE intern