EdD Spotlight: Leading Equity and Justice in K-12 Education

To say that Denise LaRosa started her new job at a challenging time is an understatement.

In June 2020, LaRosa began as the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at The Ellis School, a private, all-girls school in Pittsburgh for children ages 3 through grade 12.

When she began her new position, the COVID-19 pandemic was requiring her and most co-workers to work remotely. Furthermore, the school community was thinking deeper and more critically about racial injustice and race relations following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

Fortunately, LaRosa was up to the challenge.

“I’m one of those people, I do it scared,” says LaRosa, with a chuckle. “Part of what prepared me for this role is being able to do it scared and to embrace the discomfort of it all.”

LaRosa got well acquainted with this mindset in the Doctor of Education (EdD) program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education. She entered the program in summer 2018, “terrified,” she says, because her daughters were just 3 and 5 years old, and she was also working full-time as a Pre-K teacher at The Ellis School, while her husband also worked full time at a TV news station.

Nevertheless, LaRosa says she felt “a calling” to continue her education. To her delight, she found the Pitt EdD program to be accommodating to her as a working parent. The hybrid-online format, which has one in-person class each month on Saturdays, fit well into her busy schedule.

It also helped that her EdD courses were directly relevant to her experiences as an educator.

“I find myself constantly referencing and sharing info and returning to the texts that we read. The assignments helped me grow in what I do in the diversity, equity, and inclusion field,” says LaRosa.

Making an Immediate Impact

At the Ellis School, LaRosa strives to have a broad impact with an equity-minded lens. 

“I partner with all stakeholders and community members at Ellis, including families, students, school leaders, faculty, and board members to ensure we are fostering a diverse and equitable environment for everyone,” says LaRosa. 

One of LaRosa’s first actions as director was to host an online program for families regarding how to discuss race with their children.

LaRosa didn’t shy away from this difficult subject. Hundreds of parents and outside community members attended the talk. The interactions yielded insights on important questions by providing a safe space to ask questions. 

“I told the participants to remember that you’re learning alongside the children in your life and growing with them. The modeling piece of modeling your own behavior is one of the most important takeaways,” says LaRosa.

Now, LaRosa is working on a project to install a culturally responsive instructional coaching model for teachers at The Ellis School. The effort will be piloted at the third-grade level, which is the most diverse class in the lower school. School-wide about 38% of students are people of color.

“Social justice is a component of the project. We must continue to focus on  things that best serve our increasingly diverse student body,” says LaRosa.  

A “Huge” Return on Investment

LaRosa credits the Pitt EdD program for preparing her well for a leadership position. 

In particular, she draws on the program’s emphasis on improvement science. Originating in the healthcare field, the improvement science methodology aims to continually improve outcomes by placing the practitioner in a continuous cycle to plan, study, and act on problems of practice.

“Improvement science is really cutting edge in education. Through it, you enact small tests of change with minimal risk. It also helps you fail forward if you fail at all,” says LaRosa.

LaRosa is also grateful for the support of her peers in the program. Being part of the same cohort for several years allowed her to form close bonds with her classmates. 

“I don’t call them my classmates. They’re family,” says LaRosa, who is scheduled to graduate in Summer 2021. “No one ever let me leave or fail.” 

As The Ellis School prepares to start its new academic year in the midst of the pandemic, LaRosa isn’t certain what the year will hold. However, she is confident she can meet the challenges of the changing environment.

It goes back to her willingness to embrace discomfort and the education she received in the Pitt EdD program. 

“It has given me a huge return on investment,” says LaRosa. “If you want to be a leader in the 21st century in our increasingly competitive and diverse society, then this EdD program is exactly what you need.”

Learn More

The Doctor of Education (EdD) program at the Pitt School of Education is currently accepting applications.

The Pitt School of Education is the headquarters of the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate, a consortium of more than 115 schools of education working to improve the EdD degree program. This provides additional opportunities to students studying in the EdD program.