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Whim to Wish

As an undergraduate, Sue Cassata wanted to serve on the school's student senate. The only opening was for education majors, so she declared herself one and went on to win a senate seat. "It's a sad, pathetic little story," she says, grinning at the anecdote of what led her to teaching. But keep reading. What started as a whim for Cassata turned into a wish to be a great educator. She became a great social studies teacher. A great educational coordinator and associate principal. An inspiring professor and team member of Doane's Master of Education in Educational Leadership program. And last year, principal at Lincoln East.

She jumped into the administrator role, where a day's worth of decisions may touch everything from parking and construction to student assessments and Professional Learning Communities.

"Right now, I'm trying to familiarize myself with the culture of this school, with its 115 teachers and 1,450 students."

This high school, packed with noise and youth and genius and chaos, is exactly where she wants to be. "I loved my work at Doane, but missed the connection to a single school. I missed the craziness of adolescence."

Cassata, an '01 EDL graduate, still lends her expertise to the program and says she sees its influence at Lincoln East and schools throughout the state and region.

Few Nebraska districts don't employ a graduate of Doane Master of Education programs, either EDL or Curriculum and Instruction. At Lincoln East, Cassata's administrative team includes Liz Miller, a graduate of EDL Cadre 13, Dennis Mann, Cadre 8, and Greg Fleming, currently in Cadre 18.

"The program has created such a network around the state. I can almost tell by listening to educators speak if they have been a part of Doane, or worked closely with someone who has." It's a subtle, but important, difference, she says. She hears less possessiveness. "It's not about ‘my staff or my school.' Instead they talk about their service to school or community and talk with passion about the work they do."

Cassata became an assistant professor in the EDL program in 2003, helped redesign a multicultural strand of the program and was a part of the creation and implementation of the EDL program on Doane's Grand Island campus. Cassata calls the program "a study of who you are, what you are about and what you believe in education and people. It grounds you in yourself and challenges you if your view is not as broad as it should be."

Jed Johnston, dean of graduate studies in Educational Leadership, said Cassata lent her strengths to the program. "Sue provided the unique perspective of a graduate of the program and an active leader in schools. She challenged it to grow to better serve the needs of the PreK-12 learner in schools by promoting opportunities for leadership."

Cassata's broad background in education also helped with her selection as Lincoln East principal, a background that includes strong instructional skills, experience in school improvement and accreditation, new teacher mentoring and international travel.

She completed a study tour of China and a summer seminar at Yale on ethnicity and Chinese culture. She returned to China in October of 2008 with a group of Lincoln Public Schools and UNL representatives visiting Beijing and Xian for intensive language courses and other training.

There are big issues facing education right now, she said, no matter the district or region. The list includes learning to work with a new assessment system while balancing it with quality assessments already written, and learning to teach to the changing demographics of communities, whether the demographic is income or students whose primary language is not English. Her goal as a new administrator is the same as in any school setting, she said: to help teachers and staff and all students be successful-and keeping that in focus while other turbid pieces vie for her time.

Her friends call her a consummate reader and learner; someone who helps others find strengths and blends people into a powerful team. "She's a person who is not afraid to challenge the thinking and behaviors of others in a way that promotes their growth and results in change," Johnston said. And she has another quality that comes in handy in high-school halls-a big, infectious laugh.

Cassata couldn't have guessed when she picked her undergraduate major on a whim how perfectly qualified she was-she not only loves kids, she said, but appreciates them. "You have to be willing to accept them for who they are and help them visualize the next layer."

Cassata wrote a personal mission statement as a student of the EDL program: To hold on to the goodness of humanity through justice and education. "That mission permeates all action and says much about Sue," Johnston said.