Five Questions with

photo of new neag school of education dean gladis kersaintGladis Kersaint, the new dean of the Neag School of Education, arrived at UConn in June and is spending her first winter in the Northeast. She’s a mathematics education scholar and most recently worked at the University of South Florida, where she was associate dean of academic affairs and research for the College of Education.

We caught up with her recently to chat about her thoughts on education in America and less serious matters in our ongoing series, “Five Questions With.”

Q. What was your childhood like?
A. I was born in the Bahamas, and I am of Haitian heritage. My family moved to Miami, where I grew up since I was a year old. I’m the fourth of five children. I would say that my childhood was rather ordinary. I’m of that era where you stayed out all day until the streetlights came on. I spent a lot of time hanging out with friends, including going to the local community pool. Given the time period, we did not spend a lot of time staring at the computer.

People may be surprised to learn that I studied music early in life. In fact, I was in a special music program in middle school in which I spent four days in regular school and went to another school once a week to study music. It was a holistic music program that focused on developing a variety of skills, such as music theory, composition, and the like. Unfortunately, I didn’t stick with it.

I also was a candy striper volunteer at Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital. My sister worked there and my parents believed it was important engage me in structured activities. I ran errands, escorted patients out of the hospital, passed out magazines, and sometimes just talked to people who were there for many days.
My parents were not college-educated. My father was a skilled tradesman – a welder and mechanic. My mother worked in the service industry.

Q. What do you think is the single biggest issue in U.S. education today?
A. I don’t know if there is a single biggest issue. I think there are a number of issues. An important issue is ensuring that we give full support to public education. One of my concerns is the perception that we can address ineffective schools or low-performing schools by considering alternatives, such as school choice. That doesn’t address the core issue. It just provides options, which I don’t want to take away. But I think it’s more important to provide all students with access to high-quality public education.

I think, as a society, we need to look at the importance of education, not in terms of lip service, but it terms of really putting the resources behind the things we say we value. We want all students to be educated, we want all students to be taught by highly qualified, effective teachers. We want all schools to have the resources needed to support learning. All of those things are based on a commitment by the citizens and the government to provide the resources to do that. Yet when there’s a budget crisis, what sees the impact immediately? Education. We should commit to long-term approaches to systematically improve education and stick with it long enough to see the results. Education should not be at the mercy of political whims.

Q. How can UConn’s Neag School of Education help address the student achievement gap in Connecticut?
A. Part of the attraction for me to come to the Neag School is its long-term commitment to address social justice and equity issues. In a recent newsletter, we gave an update on the work of six faculty members hired in 2013 to bolster work at Neag focusing on equity issues and factors that affect student achievement. They are not just looking at the gap, but other factors that affect student experiences and engagement, such as school climate, positive behavior supports, and the influence of local and federal policies. For Connecticut, a key issue is preparing educators to meet the needs of shifting student demographics to ensure all students can be successful.

Q. What would someone be surprised to know about you?
A. I took swimming lessons when I was in my 40s and now I can float. After Hurricane Katrina, I figured it might be important to learn how to swim. I’m from the Caribbean and from Florida, so people say, ‘of course you know how to swim. You’re around water all the time.’ I am not afraid of water, but I never learned how to swim. It was hard to learn at that age. At this point, I don’t consider myself a swimmer, but I do have some survival skills.

Q. What do you like to do for fun?
A. Because I am new to Connecticut and this role, I’ve been investing most of my time learning about UConn, the Neag School, and the educational context in Connecticut, including getting to know key stakeholders in each of these areas. People might not consider it “fun,” but I’m finding it quite interesting and believe this is what I need to do now.

The one thing that I am doing for the first time in my life is learning to cook. Actually, I am using Blue Apron. They deliver a box of ingredients and a recipe to your home and you use it to make the meals. I am learning quite a bit.

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