Leading the Charge

The public school system in America is in crisis, and La Vonne Neal, Ph.D., ’77, has co-edited a book in an attempt to sound the national alarm.

Diversifying the Teacher Workforce: Preparing and Retaining Highly Effective Teachers aims to curb cultural disparities in education by addressing the institutional obstacles that dissuade people of color from pursuing teaching careers. It points to the fact that just 50 percent of scholars of color graduate from high school, while suggesting many teachers (83 percent of whom are white) are not aware of how to bridge cultural gaps.

“The key is for educators to admit there is a problem. This is not an indictment of education; it is an opportunity to grow,” said Neal, Dean of the College of Education at Northern Illinois University (NIU). “We don’t need to reinvent anything. We just need to retool so that we can spark genius in scholars from all communities. One way to do that is to have teachers who understand the communities students come from, teachers who look like their students so that they can aspire to be teachers themselves.”

Neal’s book doesn’t just identify systemic challenges in education; it identifies systemic solutions as well. She and her co-editors found which school districts around the country had the most success and invited them to submit chapters showing how they’ve made progress. For example, data shows that many teacher certification programs are based in rural settings and often require participants to drive to their teaching sites; however, some people in urban settings may not have driver’s licenses.

“The paradigm for public universities used to be, ‘If you build it, they will come,’ but that’s not factually accurate,” Neal said. “You cannot take your university and move it physically, but you can be innovative with the platforms you use, such as online. You also can provide satellite locations in urban settings. Your faculty can go teach classes at area high schools.”

The solution doesn’t just involve attracting more teachers of color; it also includes making all teachers more culturally aware of the needs of their students. To do that, Neal stresses the importance of multiple experiences—in different regions, with different cultures—as the key to being able to organically link with a variety of communities.

“When you have the ability to experience difference, you realize the value in it,” said Neal, who sends her students at NIU to different environments, where they live with host families and build organic roots in various communities. “Our curriculum is focused on linking living communities with educational communities. We explicitly teach social justice and scholar identity development. It’s salient to find programs to prepare you to do that, especially if you come from a community with limited experience and exposure.”

Neal is uniquely positioned to argue for such diverse experiences. The Philadelphia native was a star track and field athlete at Philadelphia High School for Girls and La Salle, and her success—she holds the American record for 80m hurdles—afforded her the opportunity to travel through the U.S., Europe, and the former Soviet Union.

“The key is for educators to admit there is a problem. This is not an indictment of education; it is an opportunity to grow.” —La Vonne Neal, Ph.D., ’77

Her career path has taken quite a few interesting turns as well. She’s served as a captain in military intelligence, managed operations for a number of leading companies in the corporate world, and dedicated herself to educating the youth of America, first in the classrooms of a secondary school and then as a leader in higher education after earning both her master’s and doctoral degrees in education.

Each career has had its unique set of rewards and challenges, but the unifying theme is the continued use of Neal’s leadership skills—skills she developed at La Salle that have positioned her well in her quest to improve education in America.

“The value of the liberal arts experience has really helped me throughout every domain as a leader,” Neal said. “I was encouraged to really challenge any notion, to question things, and to seek answers. And I’m still doing that today.”