Interview with Chery Lucarelli, Ph.D. - Chair of Doctoral and Graduate Education Studies at the College of St. Scholastica

About Chery Lucarelli, Ph.D.: Chery Lucarelli is Professor of Education and Chair of Doctoral and Graduate Education Studies at the College of St. Scholastica. As Chair, Dr. Lucarelli oversees curriculum design and development, accreditation, continuous improvement, faculty hiring, student advising, and admissions for all of the graduate degree programs in education and educational leadership at the College of St. Scholastica’s Stender School of Leadership, Business, and Professional Studies. In addition, she serves as Program Director for the College of St. Scholastica’s Online Doctor of Educational Leadership. Throughout her work, Dr. Lucarelli implements innovative technologies and a research-oriented approach to improving curricula, online communities of practice, and student support systems for the programs under her purview.

Prior to working at the College of St. Scholastica, Dr. Lucarelli was an elementary school teacher. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from the University of Minnesota Duluth, her Master of Arts in Math and Science Education from the College of St. Scholastica, and her Ph.D. in Educational Technology from Capella University.

Interview Questions

[] Could you please provide an overview of the College of St. Scholastica’s Doctor of Educational Leadership? How is this program structured, and what are its key learning outcomes? How is the curriculum grounded in social justice and how does that prepare students optimally for contemporary education challenges and opportunities?

[Dr. Chery Lucarelli] I’m the Founding Chair of the Doctorate of Educational Leadership program, and I had been working on this program with a group of dedicated faculty for well over three years before we launched it. We took a very research-oriented, design-thinking approach to developing this program, and this has been a critical part of my role as Chair of Doctoral and Graduate Education Studies.

We affiliated ourselves with the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate and are currently a CPED member. CPED’s guiding principles really helped us. We conducted a lot of research on how to create a program that is a high-quality online experience for students, and which disrupts some of what we are seeing in the research on doctoral education programs, such as high attrition rates and high occurrences of ABD.

As Chair, for a number of years I was bringing people together in design thinking sessions, where we were ideating, prototyping, and getting feedback from stakeholders, including folks not in education. I think that has really helped us think through our program in an unconventional and particularly effective way.

We started with, “Who are our students going to be? What do they need from us?” We have to be very vulnerable with each other as we’re creating curriculum. We share ideas, other members weigh in and we have to be willing to adjust and change. It has done nothing but strengthen our program, I would say.

We are a 60-credit program, with 48 credits devoted to foundation courses and research, and 12 devoted to elective credits. The foundation courses and research courses are the 48 credits where students stay in the same cohort so that they have an opportunity to discuss, work, and connect with the same group over the course of four years. They are so supportive of each other, it’s really helping them right now just get through the program. We’re seeing our students have a very strong sense of community, which is what we had hoped. We are seeing that is helping students persist.

[] Could you elaborate on the sequence of core courses that students are required to take? This program is unique in that the core courses have a primary focus on equity, social justice, and equitable leadership. What inspired the structuring of the curriculum this way?

[Dr. Chery Lucarelli] I’m so pleased that you saw that because we really wanted to give leaders an opportunity to transform and address equity and social justice, in whatever their settings are. We have adopted a phrase we call “Ways of Knowing.” Even in our literature reviews, we want to honor voices that aren’t necessarily in the literature. In one of the very first classes they have with me, Foundations of Equitable Leadership, we have students look first at themselves through an autoethnography lens.

We have students think about their positionality, who they are, and the assumptions they have about themselves, others, and the world. Students do something called the IDI, which is the Intercultural Development Inventory. They get coaching from a certified IDI coach, and the cohort gets to examine themselves and their cohort members and share their views. In addition, every single student has to be able to articulate what the equity and social justice component of their problem of practice is. That is essential, as it is what our program is all about.

Our faculty also are doing the work, which is hugely important. We realize we all have our own journey too as educators, so we are also doing the IDI, and getting a professional development plan that takes these ideas of equity and social justice into account. I don’t think we can do this well in our program if the faculty aren’t doing the work. Everybody who is part of this team is really looking at themselves as well, and we engage in professional development together.

[] Could you elaborate on the Laboratories of Practice and the Topics in Education course sequence that students complete?

[Dr. Chery Lucarelli] In the Laboratories of Practice course, students can investigate their problem of practice through a concrete project that’s aligned with their scholarly goals, professional goals, and/or personal goals. The project has to have elements of leadership and equity embedded within it. That Laboratory of Practice course can support a student’s official problem of practice, but it can also help them address other things that they’re working on like their leadership skills, or things they’re grappling with in terms of equity or social justice.

For example, we had a student who decided they wanted to investigate creating a blog and trying to lift up the voices of other educators. We had a student do an intergenerational experience, where she connected elders from Indigenous communities in the Minnesota area with students, as part of teaching a class for new students at the college. Her laboratory of practice brought these two groups together, but she had to think about what the equity components and leadership components were that she had to bring into that space together.

We had another student look at how she could address teacher burnout in her school; as part of that investigation, she started a running group and that’s now becoming part of her dissertation in practice.

[] After students complete their core courses, they can choose from nine different Elective Strands that can culminate in a certificate in areas such as Applied Data Analytics, Computer Science Education, Literacy Instruction, Culturally Responsive Practice, and Educational Technology. Students can also craft their own course of study according to their interests, and with support from their advisor. Could we have more information on each of these elective strands? Are they purposefully interdisciplinary/interdepartmental?

[Dr. Chery Lucarelli] For their elective strands, students have a lot of flexibility. We offer nine elective strands that culminate in a certificate, but students can also craft their own strand of electives based on their goals and interests. One of our most popular certificates is Culturally Responsive Practice.

Our certificates are great choices because they give our graduates something they can promote and use in future professional contexts. If a student cares about a certain role in an organization—for example, working in learning data analytics, or for the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion division of a particular school department—a certificate designating their having taken graduate-level courses in these specific areas can be beneficial.

[] The College of St. Scholastica’s Doctor of Educational Leadership can be completed fully online, and features live synchronous sessions to support student engagement and mentorship opportunities. Could you please elaborate on the online learning technologies that the College of St. Scholastica uses to deliver course materials and facilitate interaction between students and faculty?

[Dr. Chery Lucarelli] I love this question, as this is one of the things that my team and I feel so proud of. We’re not new to online learning, I think that’s really important, as we are at a stage when we’re optimizing rather than just getting started. We’ve been doing online since the late ’90s.

We currently use Brightspace, and it’s a very robust system. We couple that with Zoom–all faculty and students get pro-Zoom accounts, as we think it is important that our students have that as well. Beyond providing these technologies, though, we really work with faculty to ensure that their students have a good online experience. We engage in professional development with faculty to make sure they have a strong online presence and strong student interactivity, and we adopted templates and principles for online student engagement that are all grounded in evidence-based practices. We’ve grounded our online work in a number of evidence-based practices and frameworks, like the community of inquiry model, which really talks about social presence, which here is defined as students being able to bring their real self to that online space.

Our faculty truly care about online learning. We’re experienced in online learning, we engage ourselves in professional development, and we’re all members of the Online Learning Consortium. We audit our online courses and have instructional designers that we work with, and we expect our faculty to engage in professional development around online learning, as we all know online learning is fairly new and rapidly evolving.

Another thing we do to facilitate engagement is bring students into Zoom weekly on Monday nights for synchronous sessions. We have faculty rotate through different special topics in-depth. So, one-night students might have a deep dive on research methods, while the following week they might have a seminar for their course focused on equity, social justice, and action.

The majority of our instruction is asynchronous, since all of our students are adult learners with multiple responsibilities. That means that our online modules and other content need to be just as engaging for our students as the synchronous sessions they have on Mondays. As a faculty team, we really lean into discussions around, “What does that asynchronous component look like? And how can it be made engaging and interactive?”

This led us to foster Professional Learning Communities (PLC) through our cohort-based model and the collaborative projects we have students complete. Within their cohort, students have the same professors and engage with each other asynchronously through Google Docs and Zoom, and in doing so they create these small virtual learning communities. Our survey data shows our students are really supporting each other and helping them persist through personal things that arise. Ultimately, they’re helping each other as scholars, writers, and practitioners.

One of the things I host weekly is an optional Tuesday night session called Conversation Cafe. As Program Director, I hold space for students to come in a Zoom session and we have a conversation starter. Just last night, we were talking about conceptual and theoretical frameworks. But often students are sharing a picture of their dog or talking about just fun personal things, and then sometimes they have questions for me as Program Director.

These sessions help me connect better with students’ experiences, which then helps us with program quality. Because if I’m not teaching a class with the students, I’m a little removed now as Program Director. I have fairly good attendance at those. It’s informal academic discussion, with personal connection building.

We’ve just added a dedicated informal writing option, and we call it “Joyful Social Writing.” Students come in and bring a piece of writing and we all write together as an accountability exercise. Those are just small ways in which we make an effort to stay connected with students and to support their success.

[] The College of St. Scholastica’s Doctor of Educational Leadership features a concurrent dissertation model. Could you elaborate on what this means and what the implications are for students of the program?

[Dr. Chery Lucarelli] In the first two years, students grapple with a problem of practice and apply the content from their core courses to that problem. Students are required to come into the program already thinking about social justice and equity-oriented problems of practice in their spheres of influence.

In the second year, they begin work on what we call a pre-proposal where they’re ideating and letting their study parameters take shape. Students are also assigned a dissertation chair in their second year, and that becomes a key point of mentorship, because the students are meeting with their dissertation chairs quite frequently.

With their chair’s support, students also begin assembling their dissertation committee. Students assemble a four-person committee, with the head of the committee being their chair. Two of the other three members must have a doctorate. The fourth member does not need to have a doctorate, but they have to be a key stakeholder in the student’s setting.

This idea came up at our CPED convening in the fall, and there were a number of programs trying to figure out how to make that work. We think that stakeholder input is a critical part of this equity social justice component. Our students are committed to addressing a problem that the community cares about, and we want to help them do so in a way that’s respectful and will meet the needs of the community.

By the end of their second year, students need to present and justify their proposal and their scholarly review. Once that’s given a green light, they move into the implementation phase. Students’ fourth year is mainly devoted to data collection and analysis.

[] Could we have some examples of dissertation research topics that students have explored?

[Dr. Chery Lucarelli] Great question. As mentioned previously, every single student has to be able to articulate what the equity social justice component of their problem of practice is. Within those parameters, we welcome students from any social sector. We do have a number of educators in our program, but we also have individuals who are working in healthcare, and we have individuals who are working in other nonprofits. We want to help people get out of silos and to come together to address a problem of practice, which are very complex human-centered problems.

We have a student right now who works in a rural clinic and there are a lot of disparities in terms of access for patients in a rural setting. We have another student working in a high school with a large population of Native American students, and she’s trying to figure out how she can amplify the voices of those marginalized students to help bring them into the process of solving some of the concerns that are perhaps impeding success.

Another one of our students is looking at addressing teacher burnout. Schools are looking more at social emotional learning for children, but some of our teachers are saying that they’re not feeling like that same level of attention is being addressed towards them. We would argue, teachers who feel well cared for become better at addressing the needs of students.

[] The College of St. Scholastica’s Doctor of Educational Leadership requires students to attend an annual residency on campus. What does this residency involve, and how does it provide students with crucial support and preparation to succeed in their dissertation?

[Dr. Chery Lucarelli] We thought a lot about the residency requirement because we know it’s a big ask of students. It’s three days in duration, and one of the first things they do is attend a welcome dinner where we seek to make them feel as welcome as possible in all ways. Our President and Vice President both come to the dinner, and all faculty of the program attend to welcome this group as new scholars.

We also do community building activities that enable students to interact with each other, collaborate, and ideate. We host design thinking workshops and appreciative inquiry workshops, for example. Last year, we did a roundtable discussion similar to what you might see at a professional conference. I brought in all kinds of faculty who talked about their conceptual theoretical frameworks and their primary research methodologies. The residency also includes important support sessions for students’ own research and dissertation work. We bring in our librarian and our director of writing support. We also conduct a descriptive statistics session with students.

We give students plenty of time to socialize in informal settings as well. For example, we hosted a dessert and dialogue in one of our faculty’s homes right in Duluth, and it was really a lovely event. I don’t want to diminish the social aspect of it because it’s really important, but it’s also coupled with threaded scholarly work and sometimes we differentiate. Some students might want to go into a writing retreat for a couple hours, other students need time with their dissertation chair. There’s some structured time, coupled with optional sessions and free time so that students can pick and choose what they need depending on where they are at.

[] What role does mentorship play in the College of St. Scholastica’s Doctor of Educational Leadership? How can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems while in the program?

[Dr. Chery Lucarelli] When students first come into the program, I feel really fortunate that I get to teach them, so I really get to know them. I think that’s important for me as the Program Director, and I say that because it allows me to serve in somewhat of a scholarly advisement role through that first year until their chair is assigned.

We also have a wonderful person who serves as a dedicated student advisor for all students from the beginning of their enrollment. She helps students in terms of choosing electives, or helping them find textbooks, or just anything that goes beyond a course. Then we have the professional learning community courses where they have the same faculty member teaching them for two years and the same cohort that provides mutual support.

We regularly conduct faculty meetings, so we do progress monitoring for students and try to stay connected with what a student might need. Then, in the second year of the program, students are assigned a dissertation chair, and that chair will stay with them for the rest of their program, which is another two years. So students have multiple levels of mentorship: they have each other, they have their chair and committee members, they have dedicated advisors, and then of course faculty teaching in the program.

[] For students interested in the College of St. Scholastica’s Doctor of Educational Leadership, what advice do you have in terms of submitting a competitive application?

[Dr. Chery Lucarelli] What’s really important to us is that we accept people who are excited about this work. We don’t expect people to be experts in equity and social justice, but we want people who have an open mindset and a willingness to engage in community and collaboration. We have an application essay that actually asks several prompts about this, and I would say it is the most important thing for us.

For our application essay, we suggest folks answer the best they can and to reach out to us if they have questions. We want our students to be open to looking deeply at their own assumptions and biases, being willing to collaborate and grow. That is the kind of student that we think will do quite well in our program.

We don’t have a GRE requirement intentionally, as we want to be more inclusive, but we do have a college GPA requirement of 3.0 for entrance. However, there are times when an applicant has extenuating circumstances that we can work with, where we accept them on probation for a little while, and we see how things go for them.

In terms of letters of recommendation, professional and scholarly references are both fine. We have applicants across the age spectrum, from people who are 26 and shortly out of graduate school to people who are 55 and have been in the education industry for decades. So we don’t necessarily require a scholarly reference if the applicant has been out of school for a long time.

[] What makes the College of St. Scholastica’s Doctor of Educational Leadership unique and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students who want social justice-informed education leadership training that also offers an interdisciplinary curriculum?

[Dr. Chery Lucarelli] I’ll just go back to when we designed this program and our intentions from the beginning with joining CPED and incorporating a design-thinking approach. We wanted to design a program to ensure student success. We are experienced with online learning, and we really believe philosophically that learning communities are an important part of being a successful online learner. We structured a program that embodies that.

We really wrap our arms around our students, which might sound really emotive, but we care so much for our students, and we want them to be successful. We try to help them see themselves as scholar-practitioners and that they have leadership potential. Even if they are not in formal leadership positions, we want to help them see that they have a sphere of influence that they can transform.

We try to give them tools that they’ll be able to take with them after they leave us. Our program is practitioner-focused and action-based, grounded in the students’ sphere of influence and in their setting.

Thank you, Dr. Lucarelli, for your excellent insight into the College of St. Scholastica’s online Doctor of Educational Leadership program!