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A principle return

Personal learning environments draw educational leaders, alumni back to Doane for the new Doctorate in Education degree program.


Chad DenkerChad Denker ’93, ’97E, ’01E is a Doane University man through-and-through.

He’s earned four degrees from Doane—a bachelor’s, an Education Specialist degree and two masters’—and he began working toward his fifth in September: a Doctorate of Education, Doane’s first doctoral program.

Chad’s career in education began at Doane, where he worked in higher education as a resident director in campus residence halls. Since then, he’s been a math teacher, a multi-sport coach and a high school principal before becoming the superintendent of David City Public Schools. And after years of waiting for this doctorate program to start at what he sees as the best school in the state of Nebraska, he finally gets to pursue the highest degree in his field.

Earning the doctoral degree, he said, will make him a better leader and develop a pattern of success for his school system.

“For me, it’s about personal growth,” Chad said. “I want to be good at my job, and when people think of David City Public Schools or think of Chad Denker, I want them to think of high quality, that it’s a school system they want to be part of, that they want their kids to be part of.”

Instead of enrolling in a doctoral program at any of Nebraska’s bevy of other colleges, Chad waited for Doane.

“I like Doane’s format, first and foremost,” he said. “(Your cohort) becomes a tight-knit group, so you have an instant group of colleagues and administrators to network with. Plus, everything we learn, there’s instant application. A lot of school curriculum is theory-based, but what sounds good in a book doesn’t always work on the job. Everything we learn at Doane is practical, real-life stuff.”

In terms of that real-life stuff, Kelcy Tapp ’03, ’06E, ’08E, a sixth-year principal at Carriage Hill Elementary in the Papillion-LaVista School District, saw it not only as a way to develop her leadership skills, but also as a way to walk the figurative walk for her students.Kelcy Tapp

“It’s not for a title, it’s not for a career change,” she explained. “I spend my days telling children that learning is important and education is important. So I think it’s important that they see that through what I model, not just what I say.”

Kelcy strives to show her students the importance of education in other ways, too, like when she and her faculty worked to help Carriage Hill Elementary to become a Blue Ribbon School in 2014, a United States Department of Education award based on academic excellence. Carriage Hill was the first school in the district ever to receive the national honor, and the only school in the Omaha metro to receive the honor in 2014.

Like Chad, Kelcy waited on Doane to start its education doctorate program for similar reasons.

“Doane is known to produce amazing educators and teachers, so it only makes sense for them to have the highest degree,” said Kelcy, who also has four Doane degrees (a bachelor’s, Education Specialist and two masters’ and is working on No. 5).

And to her, it makes sense for Doane to offer the doctorate.Kelcy teaching

“Doane education values the journey,” Kelcy continued. “Learning is a process, and they see that best done through self-reflection and through relationships. I think those ideals and that philosophy match me and obviously other types of learners, and I think that’s what makes Doane so powerful.”

The long-awaited Doctorate of Education program currently has 34 students enrolled, all who learned about the opportunity through word of mouth or via email after graduating from other Doane education programs. Although the first cohort mostly consists of educators, the practitioner’s degree applies to other areas of interest as well, like the nonprofit or health care sectors where leaders can use their practical experience to create dissertations to improve their leadership capacities. The program—and a candidate’s dissertation—will help distinguish students as an expert in a chosen field, said Dr. Cate Sommervold, director of the program.

The predominantly weekend schedule of classes enables adult learners to attend face-to-face sessions, a quality that sets Doane’s program apart from others; it isn’t online and it doesn’t interfere with full-time professional work. The program prepares candidates for leadership roles through the development of research and analysis skills that allow students to become highly specialized experts in a specific discipline or field of study and to progress in their careers. Completion leads students to obtain a central office or superintendent position, teach at the college level or start their own education consulting business.

First and foremost, it’s a practitioner’s program with a focus on critical thinking and reflection.

“Becoming a reflective practitioner is embedded in the coursework,” Dr. Sommervold said. “That’s how people learn to become innovative and think critically about what’s going on around them.”

It’s those qualities—innovation and critical thinking—that research shows are necessary for educators to possess in the future for a wide variety of positions available in education.