Growing up in a rural, mostly white town in western Massachusetts, Jacquelynne Boivin learned little at school about other cultures or racial issues. Her parents made a conscious effort to diversify her experiences through books, films, and playing sports in a neighboring city, but in her history and social studies classes, important elements of U.S. history like slavery, Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement were touched on briefly, if at all. When she started teaching fifth grade at an elementary school in rural western MA., she realized that her own experience was typical of many predominantly white rural schools—and that not much had changed.
In the age of Donald Trump, the Black Lives Matter movement, and increasing political division and discord, Jacquelynne wondered, what was her role as a white teacher in a predominantly white school to promote a more multicultural approach to learning? And what kind of leadership from school principals did teachers need?
Seeking answers led Jacquelynne to Lesley University to pursue a doctorate degree in Educational Studies: Educational Leadership and to write a dissertation that has evolved into a book, “Exploring the Role of the School Principal in Predominantly White Middle Schools: School Leadership to Promote Multicultural Understanding” (November, 2020).
“It’s a little less academic in tone than my dissertation,” explains Jacquelynne, who is an assistant professor of elementary and early childhood education at Bridgewater State University. Based on her research at Lesley and on her own experiences as a teacher, the book explores the importance of effective school leadership in developing multicultural school climate in predominantly white schools.
An urgent need for multicultural education
With a bachelor’s degree in education and child study from Smith College and a master’s degree in elementary education from Cambridge College, Jacquelynne had spent years considering teaching from an academic perspective, but it was her experience in the classroom that gave her a sense of urgency. Most of her students lacked the knowledge or language to talk about issues like slavery—some of her fifth graders were unfamiliar with the concept itself. “They had no idea that it was part of American history, part of our identity.”
Jacquelynne used the 2016 U.S. election as a teaching topic, leading Socratic seminars with her fifth graders, debating immigration reform and other topical issues, and teaching her students how to form an opinion based on evidence. As she tackled challenging political topics in her classroom, she laid down a framework of open communication with her school’s community to get perspective. “It was a learning experience for all—and it was positive in the end," she says.
During her first year of teaching fifth grade, Jacquelynne began thinking of pursuing her doctorate and chose Lesley’s PhD in Educational Studies: Educational Leadership program. “Lesley appealed to me because it was a low-residency program. I could continue working full-time and wouldn’t have to quit teaching.” Stephen Gould, the director of Lesley’s PhD in Educational Leadership program provided insights that further convinced her that Lesley would be the ideal place for her.
There were a few different topics Jacquelynne was interested in exploring, but she kept returning to the question of teaching multicultural issues in mostly white schools and the challenges that she was experiencing in her own classroom. She discussed the roadblocks she was encountering in teaching about race with her Lesley advisor John Ciesluk, who encouraged her to pursue it as an area of academic focus. Research, he told her, should fill a void. “And he told me ‘this really connects with you on a personal level.’"
She dove into her research, surveying 17 middle school principals in rural, mostly white towns and interviewing 10 of them. Many, she found, were interested in developing a more multicultural approach to education but didn’t always have the resources or know where to begin.
She’s hoping that the research that laid the foundation of her dissertation will serve as a helpful guide for school leaders who are trying to foster multicultural learning in their schools. And she feels strongly that giving students in rural, mostly white communities a broader education in cultural diversity and racial issues is crucial to their understanding of the world around them and their role as citizens.
“I see it was a step in the right direction, when the root of the problem really is that our nation’s schools are highly segregated.”
In her book, Jacquelynne explores the modern-day segregation of schools through a Critical Race Theory framework, to historically contextualize and add a sense of urgency to these issues. “The fact that our nation still has predominantly white schools is a testament to the fact that our nation hasn’t made the racial strides once hoped for after Brown v. Board of Education,” the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in schools.
Despite the challenges she sees in the nation’s schools and her anxieties about rising cultural and racial tensions in the U.S., she’s hopeful that more predominantly white schools are trying to encourage multicultural learning. “People are trying—it’s on their radar.”
And she believes more strongly than ever in the importance of developing anti-racist school communities.
“If we want to have an anti-racist population, we have to start in the schools.”
Learn More About Doctoral Programs in Educational Studies
In each of Lesley University’s four doctoral programs in education you’ll drive your own research and create a dissertation that draws from your personal and professional experiences. Our students explore areas of scholarly inquiry such as human development, social justice, institutional change, leadership, community impact, and other emerging areas.