by Chelsea Grosbeck
One of the most rewarding aspects of Ashley White’s educational career came far before she was a doctoral student at the University of South Florida.
More than a decade prior to joining USF to pursue her Ph.D., White fondly remembers being a teacher in the Hillsborough county public school district, at Davidson Middle School, Potter Elementary, Jackson Elementary and Oak Park Elementary.
“I feel like I’ve already made a change by being a teacher,” said White.
Although a difficult choice, White left her students to pursue a doctoral degree at USF to help solve a challenge she witnessed — the lack of resources her students were given due to educational policy and resource allocation.
As a doctoral candidate in the College of Education, White’s research focuses on special education policy. Her applied work at USF with varying nonprofit partnerships and her congressional internships led her to making that change.
To celebrate her trailblazing achievements in reforming special education policy on-campus and off, she was the recipient of the distinguished Jane E. West SPARK Award, a recognition presented by the Council for Exceptional Children’s Teacher Education Division to an individual who actively advocates for special education teacher preparation and who is committed to continuing their work in shaping educational policy.
Jane West, whom the award commemorates, was a mentor to White during an internship in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education last summer. West’s work as a legislative liaison and consultant for both the Higher Education Consortium for Special Education (HECSE) and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) works to bring together representatives, member institutions, policy makers and other national leaders to collaborate on educational developments.
During White's internship this summer, what had the most memorable impact on her was working alongside U.S. Rep. Congresswoman Kathy Castor.
White in Congresswoman Kathy Castor’s Office during her Congressional Internship.
“There are allies that value education and who opened my eyes to the world of policy, Congresswoman Castor being one of them,” White said. “I have a better understanding of how people work and an appreciation for the important work people are doing.”
White with U.S. Representative Kathy Castor on Capitol Hill
While pursuing a congressional internship last summer, White was additionally influenced while working alongside Castor on the re-authorization of the Higher Education Act. She said her work on Capitol Hill has further inspired her studies at USF and motivates her to create change for students.
“There are many ways to advocate… we can ensure students with varying needs are being served what they are due,” White said. “We are making sure policies adhere to that.”
Since last year, White has been involved with G3, a nonprofit mentorship program partnership with USF that serves students in urban and inner city communities to give students and parents the tools to create high performing, achieving students through community partnerships.
She also works in Behavioral Sciences for the Florida Positive Behavioral Interventions Support (PBIS) project, a program of the Florida Center for Inclusive Communities at USF. Through this project, White assists teachers in treating all students equitably through behavior practices to influence academic ability and achievements.
Despite all of her achievements in the classroom and in the field, White said the award still came as a surprise to her. Jeannie Kleinhammer-Tramill, Ph.D., a professor in the Special Education program at USF, said she knew White was well deserving of this recognition.
“She has a very mature perspective on education, special education in particular and certainly on policy as they relate to children with diverse needs,” Dr. Kleinhammer-Tramill said.
As the project director for White’s grant, Dr. Kleinhammer-Tramill oversees students pursuing a doctorate in Special Education along with a cognate, or an area of emphasis, in educational leadership and policy studies. Kleinhammer-Tramill said she was impressed with White from the start.
“She is relentless in her pursuit for experience,” Dr. Kleinhammer-Trammill said. “She will graduate from the USF Special Education Doctoral program with a heightened level of awareness and sophistication and an ability to really have an impact in the field of special education within the policy arena.”
Under the guidance of her advisors, White acknowledges her success is a reflection of the USF and other Florida university faculty that have helped her as she pursues her Ph.D. In addition to Dr. Jane West and Dr. Kleinhammer-Tramill, she credits Dr. David Allsopp, Dr. David Hoppey (UNF), Dr. Vonzell Agosto, Dr. Erica McCray (UF) and Dr. Cynthia Wilson (FAU) for helping her along her educational journey.
“Whatever I’ve done, I haven’t done it by myself,” said White. “I want to become the type of professional that will represent my colleagues well and the students that I serve.”
Aiming to complete her dissertation in Summer of 2019, White confesses it has not been an easy four years, her drive to make a change started in the classroom during her days as a teacher. Curious of where her future will lead her, White’s passion for special education and policy reform starts and ends with students.
“When I reflect back on all the students… I know that I already had the opportunity to make one of the most important differences there is — working with students every single day.”